How to be Great

I’ve been meaning to review the book Great by Choice by Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen for some time.  I read it last year.  Okay, I listened to it.  But it was the unabridged version and it was excellently read by Jim Collins.  I loved, loved, loved this book.  I loved it so much that I listened to it twice and  dropped enough hints that I wanted to read his previous book Good to Great, that my son got it for me for Christmas.

The book examines a bunch of companies (called “10X Companies”) that on average did ten times better in terms of returns than the average for companies in their product categories and compares them to a competitor that was in the same type of industry.  The comparison is over a twenty year to thirty year period and draws conclusions from some of the choices made by the “10X” companies.  Also, the 10X companies weren’t always 10X companies – in fact, the comparison company in many cases were doing better when the study began.

The reason I loved this book so much is that it breaks down the pursuit of excellence into steps that can modified and used by anyone who wants to enhance their abilities.  Collins and Mortensen not only tell some riveting tales (believe it or not) about the companies and how they achieved greatness, they draw out conclusions based on the evidence.  In one chapter, they examine how the companies reacted to “luck” – good and bad.

So, how do you choose to be great?  There are three core behaviours that they identify that a person or company needs to cultivate and they are:  Fanatic Discipline, Empirical Creativity, and Productive Paranoia.  Each of these behaviours has an analogy.

Fanatic Discipline’s analogy is the “20 mile march”.  When you have a huge goal, not only do you need to break it down into smaller parts, but you have to pick a doable target and do it.  Every day or every week or every month or every year.  The example they use is walking across the continent of North America.  If you set a target of 20 miles a day, you will be able to estimate pretty clearly when you will get there and how achievable the goal is.  Another group with the same goal might go further than 20 miles on good days and less than 20 miles on bad days.  The problem is that you can easily over extend yourself if you are reacting to highs and lows instead of being consistent.  Slow and steady wins the race.

Fire bullets then fire cannonballs is the analogy for Empirical Creativity.  When trying something new, make little tests instead of putting all your power behind an untested idea or just using a hunch.  When you ”fire bullets”, you can recalibrate your aim if you miss the “target”.  Once you have the target accurately in your sights (you are doing something that you know works), then you fire a cannonball or put in a big effort behind the idea.  There are plenty of examples of companies taking a chance on a new idea and failing miserably.  New Coke anyone?

The analogy for Productive Paranoia is staying above the “death line”.  Do not make any “all or nothing” gambles.  If you are climbing up Mount Everest, do not bring up just enough supplies to get you there and back.  Take up enough supplies to get you there and back in the worst case scenario and then increase that amount — just in case.  You should always be making contingency plans.

So how do these behaviours relate to writing?  For me, being fanatically disciplined means trying to write at least a page a day.  Being empirically creative means having a play reading or doing a show in the Fringe festival before committing lots of time to develop it into a full length play.  Staying above the death line means keeping my day job or some other source of income before deciding to become a full time playwright.

What is your “20 mile march”, “fire bullets then cannonballs”, and “staying above the death line”?

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