Column: Great Skis, Great Skiing, to Great Organizations Part II

Great Skis, Great Skiing, to Great Organizations – From Personal Development to Organizational Development Part II

Column by ELENA YANG

From “hedgehog” of last week to “flywheel” of this week; these are some of the principles in Jim Collins’ “Good To Great.”

The “flywheel” is about steady improvement over time; with momentum gradually building up, the wheel/organization eventually transforms and takes off. 

There is no flashy launching of some product/program or momentous announcement. Every delivery of result builds for the next step and on and on, so that when looking back, people within the organization cannot point out when the “first” push took place. 

Now, outsiders may have very different perspectives. The “doom loop” is the opposite; it usually happens whenever a new manager comes in with her own new objectives and terminates the efforts made by predecessors, often aiming for some dramatic “breakthroughs.” 

Such a grand gesture only disrupts the organization’s momentum.

This is also true for skiing…let’s not forget how I started on this topic. The “aha!” moments usually occur only after we work on our techniques for a while. 

I don’t immediately get or do what my instructor tells me to, even if I grasp the principles intellectually. It took a long time before I hit the moment of “turning with your ankles and feet” (I can still see that moment in my mind’s eye) while it was relatively easier to learn to keep my upper body quiet. 

Controlling the bigger body part is easier than the smaller parts, especially when the small parts are bounded by unyielding stiff boots.

Behind all these efforts in organization, though, lies the most important foundation, the “right” people. Mr. Collins emphasizes that it is critical for managers to understand that putting the right people in your team precedes what your organization/team is about. 

He uses the metaphor of “putting the right people on the bus.”  As for how to choose the “right” people, it’s about getting the best qualified people. This principle is intuitively appealing, but it is like saying “buy low and sell high” to win in the stock market, the devil is in the how

Most of us have been interviewed and some of us have interviewed candidates for jobs. No matter how carefully you go through the process, there is always a strong likelihood of disappointment on both sides after the hiring; there is no guaranteed process. 

So, the question is: What to do when you have the “wrong” person?  Ideally, the person realizes that he’s on the wrong bus and chooses to leave.

How often does that happen? Again, theoretically, if an organization is managed well, and the environment is collegial, then the wrong person would quickly realizes the mismatch of her position. 

And by the way, qualified person doesn’t necessarily mean “genius,” especially “genius with a thousand helpers.” What happens when genius leaves? You lose the momentum.

In Collins’ book, there are detailed examples and narratives of how the combination of the “right” people does work, but you won’t find any check list to guide you. 

It’s not that kind of book. There is a degree of faith and confidence that a manager needs to develop. When I let myself go and trust my skiing skills, there is definitely a lightness in my being. 

Another part of this principle of “first who … then what” argues that qualified people who are diligent and disciplined are self-motivated to stay on regardless of the tasks. 

However, if people are “lured” to work on certain aspects of organization’s development or products, what happens when that work is done? What will they do when the bus reaches destination? Their motivation may not easily transfer to other dimensions, or the next journeys. This is exactly the premise for Dan Pink’s TED talk on motivation. 

The final point about this particular principle that resonates with me is the notion that you put your best people on your biggest opportunities, not your biggest problems.

“Managing your problems can only make you good, where building your opportunities is the only way to become great.” When I was in graduate school, once in a blue moon we had to do group projects. 

I remember in one of these projects, one of my classmates proposed that we each lead the aspect about which we’d want to learn more, preferably an aspect that was our individual weak point. 

My reaction was that I should invest more heavily in aspects I enjoyed and then, I would have more motivation and energy to improve in other areas where I wasn’t good yet. One approach was based on scarcity mode and the other on abundancy mode. A pair of great skis put me in abundancy mode, and I excelled. 

One word about technology. Great companies do not emphasize technology; they use it when it suits their purposes but technology does not drive their organization. 

(Of course, many great companies develop and/or sell technology, but they are not composed of technology.) If I hadn’t already possessed some skiing skills and known how to appreciate the difference between good and great skiing for myself, the latest-technology model wouldn’t have impressed me nor given me such pleasure. 

Do these principles for great organizations apply to the social sector, i.e. not-for-profit? Why wouldn’t they? In Collin’s monograph that focuses on the social sectors, he argues that the notion that the social sector should become more “business like” is “dead wrong!” EXACTLY! 

How many times have we, the public, lamented over the disasters the private industries have brought to the overall economy, from Enron, savings & loans debacle, to the current mess we have been in? 

So, why should we uphold business practices as sacrosanct? For-profit organizations have multiple sets of resources to throw at their problems, a luxury that social sectors fundamentally lack. 

So, if anything, the more successful social sectors’ operations should be the model for business. The distinction does not lie between for-profit organizations and not-for-profit, but as Mr. Collin points out, should be between good ones and great ones. At some level, constrained resources provide the mother lode of creativity.

I am still learning how to release my creativity. I will share with you my aha’s when I finally learn the how’s. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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