I took my grandchildren to the park yesterday – a shaded playground, well-appointed with an appropriate slide, jungle-gym, see-saw, swings and the favourite merry-go-round or “round-about”. All of the activities represent one or another challenge for little ones – the swing (how high can I go?), the jungle-gym (how daring can I be?), the slide (can I overcome my fear of heights?), the see-saw (can I hold on even though I may get bounced?) and finally the merry-go-round (am I going to be strong enough to do battle with centrifugal force?). My grandchildren always seem to gravitate to the jungle-gym initially, but after a while, I am called over to turn the merry-go-round for them. As they are still young, this required a little effort from my part just to get it going, but predominately gentle consistency, as speed here for them is too scary. I found out something really interesting (and I tested it later once they had run off to play elsewhere in the park) – there was initial effort to get the heavy merry-go-round rotating, but after a while, as the merry-go-round picked up speed, seemingly less (but consistent) effort was required to get the round-about moving really fast. It seemed at some point that I managed to achieve breakthrough – the momentum of the circular playground attraction kicked in and its heavy weight started working for me. I was pushing no harder than I had done previously, but the merry-go-round (just like a flywheel) was building on work done earlier, compounding my investment of effort.
It struck me that breakthrough, in a business context, is usually the accumulation of effort applied consistently and not a single spectacular event. Transformation to get to the top of the pile never happens in one fell swoop – no single defining action, no solitary lucky break, no astounding innovation, but usually from doing the right things over and over again. Jim Collins, of Good to Great fame, noted: “Good to great comes about by a cumulative process – step by step, action by action, decision by decision, turn by turn of the flywheel – that adds up to sustained and spectacular results”. There was initial build-up – the accumulation of knowledge and know-how, until finally breakthrough was reached – reaching and passing of thresholds. It seems as if breakthrough is an organic and cumulative process.
So, if breakthrough is not a miracle moment, but a consistent application of the right things over time, what needs to be done? The following may help:
- Identify that which you can do better than anyone else – this may lie in a product, customer service, quality, innovation, delivery time, etc., but it should be clear and undisputable. It should set you apart from the rest.
- Focus all your energy on honing this uniqueness – align systems, processes, technology and attitude (both within leadership and employees) on improving and perfecting this uniqueness. Measurement, reward and recognition processes should be included in this exercise.
- Identify constraints (things that hold you back from achieving greatness) – say “no” to peripheral activity, bolster resources and empower your people. Attempt to minimise bureaucracy.
- Employ leaders that are going to exemplify the needed transformation – leadership sets the pace for the organisation, models behaviour that is desirable and sets the tone for greatness.
- Consistently communicate, model and apply the right behaviours that will elevate the company’s uniqueness – this builds reputation, testimony and ultimately customer loyalty.
Achieving breakthrough and subsequent success is not a single event, but a cumulative process. As knowledge and practise start gaining momentum, employees get excited about the company potential – they start working for its success, for achievement and reward. Customers sense the transformation and identify themselves with the uniqueness through loyalty. Breakthrough is the inevitable result.