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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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