Monday, March 18, 2013

Would you believe?

Do you thrive on order or disorder? Into Ccontrol or Kaos chaos?

Are you a connect-the-dots kind of manager, taking comfort in plans and processes, trusting in systems that provide structure to move your organization forward step-by-step?

Or do you prefer a more freewheeling environment, believing that adaptability and improvisation is a litmus test that allows one's mettle to come shining through.

It's probably not a question that business owners ponder very often, but it came up in conversation a number of times this week, speaking with prospective TAB Board members about their approaches to managing their companies.

Some of those I met with professed to love the challenge of dealing with constant change, navigating a stormy environment and choosing the correct tack to keep forward progress going.  Others, well, not so much. They preferred a more grounded and gradual approach.

I'm sure you know successful executives in both camps. Today's entrepreneurial zeitgeist certainly reflects more of the swashbuckling, freewheeling, disruptive business type. And, while the it may be a more sexy story, would you believe that this approach yields worse outcomes than the old-school methodical, follow-the-plan approach?

As Jim Collins illustrated in his book Great By Choice, a discipline he calls "20-Mile March" behavior is a leadership trait that gives organizations "the ability to impose order upon disorder, consistency amid swirling controversy" but only when it is combined with a near obsessive focus on making continued progress against the objective.

According to Collins:
"Some people believe that a world characterized by radical change and disruptive forces no longer favors those who engage in consistent 20-Mile Marching. Yet the great irony is that when we examined just this type of out-of-control, fast-paced environment, we found that every (successful) company -- unlike their less-successful peers -- exemplified the 20-Mile March principle during the era we studied."
Collins relays the expeditions of Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott, two well-matched teams racing for the South Pole.
"For one team, it would be a race to victory and a safe return home. For the second team, it would be a devastating defeat, reaching the Pole only to find the wind-whipped flags of their rivals planted 34 days earlier, followed by a race for their lives -- a race that they lost in the end.... One leader led his team to victory and safety. The other led his team to defeat and death....What separated these two men? Why did one achieve spectacular success in such an extreme set of conditions, while the other failed even to survive?"
Find Collins' answer here.

The difference between success and failure is often small, with progress sometimes barely measurable and perceptible only in hindsight. Most often it is the result of a series of incremental actions and decisions rather than any single event.  Having a well-drawn plan, combined with the temperament and leadership skills to implement it consistently, even in the face of adversity, gives your organization a demonstrable edge over more flamboyant but less dependable competition.

Missing by that much may make for comedic gold, but it is often not so amusing in life or in business.  Believe it.

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