Great Skis, Great Skiing, to Great Organizations – From personal development to organizational development

I have been working on four books for the past few weeks; two are about personal development and the other two are about organizations (see listing below).  The overlapping messages are generally about living with passion, learning to release creative energy, staying disciplined and having fun. While skiing with my family recently, they began to meld together for me.  So, this entry is both personal and organizational.

  • The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander & Benjamin Zander
  • Core Transformation by Connirae Andreas & Tamara Andreas
  • Creativity in Business by Michael Ray & Rochelle Myers
  • Good to Great, and Good to Great and the Social Sectors by Jim Collins

my son’s great new “rocker” style of skis

My son has been a ski patroller since he qualified at age 14.  He is a great skier, and his new latest-technology skis just make him look more awesome!  He’s passionate about the sport, and he finds tremendous fulfillment in his patrolling knowledge and practices.  On this most recent family ski trip, I demoed some new skis using the same latest technology. My dismay that the technology seemed to have overtaken my skills lasted about 10 seconds, then was rendered pointless by the joy of the new level of skiing.

instructions on the new skis…great sense of humor

I learned how to ski when I was in my mid-20s, and the first few years’ ski trips were the typical young working professional’s once-a-year few days of fun punctuated by 360 days of regress.  My skiing ability didn’t get the momentum needed for steady progress till we moved to the southwest in 2002.  Now, with a mountain that is only 20 minutes away, we enjoy the learning curve that 20-to-30-plus-skiing-days-a-season can offer.  But I still have anxiety at times and get tense on my skis; I can tell it when my thighs hurt and I get exhausted quickly.  Yet whenever I do let go, there is a buzz in my spirit.  The latest skis I demoed allowed me to soar; the confidence they gave me took me to a new high.

the evolution of my son’s skis; all have rendered great service…2nd from the left has served me well since last season.

Every so often, I reason that at my age, I should willingly accept whatever my level is.  Then, restlessness creeps in and I have to push myself, either through some lessons or different skis.  I didn’t used to even consider skiing on moguls; they looked terrifying and just looking would rattle my knees.  Then, I was introduced to the then new technology of parabolic/shaped skis.  All of a sudden, I found myself seeking out moguls and my knees were just fine.

great skiing

Jump, now, to Jim Collins’ first sentence in his Good to Great: “Good is the enemy of great.”  Of course, I can be content with good skiing, restlessness aside; only I am affected by my level.  Organizations affect, and are affected by, many more people.

Mr. Collins lays out seven principles for good organizations to become great:  1.  level 5 leadership, which I had discussed in the past entries; 2.  first who…then what; 3.  confront the brutal facts; 4.  the hedgehog concept; 5  a cultural of discipline; 6.  technology accelerators; and 7.  the flywheel and the doom loop.  Some of these are rather self-explanatory (Mr. Collins’ book provides ample examples).  I will briefly review the “hedgehog” and “flywheel” concepts.

nature’s great abstract

The hedgehog looks inoffensive and endearing, till the quills stick out to prick you.  Its grounded steadiness (it is rather short!), combined with its defensive quills, makes the creature a formidable opponent against otherwise cunning predators, such as a fox.  So, a company that might offer a burst of brilliant cunning strategy isn’t likely to grow its business steadily even if it might capture a significant market share for a little while.

Mr. Collins further develops the hedgehog concept into three overlapping circles:  what you are deeply passionate about, what you can be the best in the world at, and what drives your economic engine.  If my son were to enter the fields of material sciences and engineering, he might do well in making and testing skis!  Metaphorically for organizations, the hedgehog embodies what the organizations are really about at the core, and mustn’t forget.  It is about what an organization can be, and not about strategy, market position, or goals, which are things an organization sets or does.  However, given what I learned from Appreciative Inquiry’s framework (see my second post in Oct., 2010), I’d modify the “best in the world at” to “best for” and that little change immediately opens up more possibilities.

For instance, Southwest Airlines does not just aim for on-time performance, low fares, or competent flying, though all are important for an airline and Southwest does them well.  More importantly, Southwest aims to be good for their customers and potential customers, and that’s why in a troubled industry, Southwest can shine while the other airlines – which may emulate the surface aspects but don’t act as if they understand what their business can be best for — have continually suffered.  Have you ever tried to talk to real agents from different airlines?  My wait time with Southwest has always been reasonable and at times downright enjoyable (and they give you the option of calling you back!).  Similarly, Enterprise car rental seems to gather a group of all cheerful and delightful people, which make me always choose them when their prices are comparable with other outfits.  As a consumer, you always can tell when an organization is genuinely attentive to your needs.

an unexpected great shot from the plane ride

One caveat about the concept of core:  I think if the organization defines its core too narrowly, for example by a particular product line or a single technology, it limits itself and risks slipping into obsolescence and oblivion.  It’s not about the quantity of aspects or items composing the core; it’s about balance between a broad vision under which several possibilities can exist and definitive outcomes on which people can focus. Nylon brought DuPont tremendous profit especially when nylon was novel and exciting, but in the course of time and competition nylon became a commodity and its profitability eroded.  Had DuPont made “nylon” its core, the company would have eroded with it.  Instead, the company viewed “engineered materials” as one of many “better things for better living” as its core, and has continued to prosper. But just because an organization stays true to its core doesn’t guarantee its success; that’s but one step.

a view from a skiing slope

Related, 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.  The “aha!” moments usually occur only after you work on your 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.

same view with telephoto lens

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; 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 do 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 do 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.

ridge after ridge…

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 choose 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.

more aerial shot

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.

frozen lake from the great height of an airplane

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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