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Marching in Step with Jim Collins’ Concepts

His contribution to corporate strategy and how he’s moving ahead, curiously.

John H. Ostdick

Jim Collins, featured in the October 2013 SUCCESS cover story, likes metaphors and acronyms. He writes of BHAGs, hedgehogs, flywheels and more. In Great by Choice, he explores the idea of what he calls the 20-Mile March, a process of bringing discipline to achieve BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals).

The 20-Mile March marker lays out a very clear gauge of performance over a long period of time. It requires two distinct types of discomfort: delivering high performance in difficult times and holding back in good times.

“It means that you have to be asking all the way along, what do I need to do today to make sure that we stay on our march today?” Collins says. “Going back to Good to Great, we know people achieve their BHAGs because they know their Hedgehog, and then push consistently to build momentum [as] in a flywheel, turn upon turn upon turn.”

Collins frequently mentions concepts he’s written about. Hedgehog refers to the one thing a person or business does best—in the hedgehog’s case, it’s rolling up in a thorny ball to thwart a fox’s attempts to eat him. Identifying your own Hedgehog involves answering three questions: What are you passionate about? What can you be the best at? What can actually make you a living? Collins’ advice is to find the area where the three answers intersect, and do that one thing very well. Another concept, the Flywheel, has to do with being relentless in pursuing a goal until you build momentum, which makes the task easier.

The 20-Mile March builds cumulative momentum, he says, building confidence in the organization’s ability to perform well in adverse circumstances, reducing the likelihood of catastrophe when encountering it by turbulent disruption, and helping exert self-control in an out-of-control environment.

“Financial markets are out of your control,” Collins says. “Customers are out of your control. Earthquakes are out of your control. Global competition is out of your control. Technological change is out of your control. Most everything is ultimately out of your control. But when you 20-Mile March, you have a tangible point of focus that keeps you and your team moving forward, despite confusion, uncertainty and even chaos.

“In my own case, I have my march right up there,” he says, motioning to a whiteboard on his conference room wall that reads: Creative 51%, Teaching 35%, Other 14%. “The numbers will fluctuate daily, but my primary focus is on creative and teaching. My basic target is 50, 30, 20. I measure that every single day. I started officially calculating it once I left Stanford.”

By having a protocol that’s been tested and is empirical, everyone knows what the protocol is, he says. “It doesn’t mean that there aren’t times that the protocol might not work. But nonetheless, it’s like at some point under duress, under pressure, under rapidly changing conditions, you don’t want to all of a sudden be throwing your protocols out when your emergency room is flooded from some catastrophe. You need to go to your training. You need to know what your recipe is, and you need to be able to execute on that recipe in that situation where the consequences of failing to perform could be severe.”

So, what now for Collins?

After 25 years of research and analysis, Jim Collins takes pride in the contribution he has made to successful corporate strategy, yet sees so much more on which to unleash his curiosity. He cites the example of Peter Drucker, who accomplished two-thirds of his work after age 65. Collins likes the Gustave Flaubertquote, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Collins is focusing on growing and learning more between ages 50 and 80 than he did between 30 and 55. He’s not sure what that means exactly, but several issues intrigue him.

“I am really interested in how we build the next generation of really great leaders from the young ones,” he says. “I think we have very big problems and I think that we solve our big problems with exceptional leadership.”

In the meantime, he feeds his acknowledged curiosity addiction, balancing a couple of books and assorted courses from different sources at any one time.

“I’ve got a history of espionage and a history of American art I’m reading, and a course on cycles of politics. I’ve been studying chaos, game theory and complexity theories, and participating in a course on the fall and rise of China in the 20th century. I was talking with somebody yesterday from Taiwan who did a master’s degree in comparative literature from ancient Chinese to Latin American poets—I couldn’t help but be curious about that.”


Read the SUCCESS cover story featuring Jim Collins in the October 2013 issue for sale on SUCCESS.com.

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