Simon is a famous presenter, partly due to his popular TEDx talks, and has also published a number of books, including Start With Why*, and Leaders Eat Last*.
While his full speech to the RSA is wide-ranging, the particular excerpt which caught my attention focuses on consistency vs intensity, and can be listened to (with animation) below. It is roughly three-and-a-half minutes long.
Intensity vs Consistency
In the excerpt, Simon speaks about great culture not being about intensity, but rather about consistency i.e. the “accumulation of… things done over the course of time repeatedly”. He gives a number of examples like:
Simon explains: “We like intensity. We like things that are fixed in time and easily measured… How do we fix broken companies? Reorg! New management! We can see the results. Layoffs! We love it – look at the savings! Yeah – in the short term...”
In the recording he also applies the concept to business relationships: “Building [deep] relationships… if you do it on a regular basis over the course of time, what ends up happening is that you discover that you trust your colleagues, that you love your boss, that you believe to the core of your being that if something is wrong that they will be there for you. What starts to happen is you start to be willing to be vulnerable… [meaning you’re] willing to raise your hand and say ‘I made a mistake’, ‘I’m not qualified for the job that you gave me’, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’, without any fear that by revealing those things will you be humiliated or fired”.
The intensity and consistency distinction reminded me of discussions I had previously in one of my roles about a business unit’s preference for big bets, repeatedly choosing one big thing every few years that was “going to save us”. The collective belief that the latest silver bullet would transform the slow decline of the business would exasperate me… Arguments for more frequent, smaller actions fell on deaf ears, despite benefits of more diversification and wider opportunities for innovation. Challenges I heard included: “why diversify a winner?” and “we need more than incremental change”…
There are cases though where big bets pay off, especially when the intense focus afforded by a genuine ‘burning platform’ galvanises everyone involved to give their all to make a new reality. These are rare though, and on balance, I believe more, smaller bets made consistently are a better approach, as they allow you to observe potential winners and invest further in them over time. In many ways this echoes my views on focus. The danger at the other end of the spectrum though is spreading your resources too thinly so that nothing really has a chance to develop…
...There is no silver bullet that’s going to fix that.
Simon’s thoughts on consistency, and my real-life experiences of meaningful but not-too-big bets, echo Jim Collins’ concept of a flywheel. Jim originally wrote about it in Good to Great* but has also more recently expanded on it in a monograph entitled Turning the Flywheel*
No matter how dramatic the end result, the good-to-great transformations never happened in one fell swoop. There was no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no wrenching revolution. 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.”
We like (intense) stories of ‘breakthrough’ moments and ‘overnight successes’, and Jim makes the case that we’ve allowed the way that transitions look to us on the outside to drive our perceptions of how those going through them on the inside experience them. In Good to Great, he says: “From the outside, they look like dramatic, almost revolutionary breakthroughs. But from the inside, they feel completely different, more like an organic development process.” Because of the perception, we chase “the single defining action, the grand program, the one killer innovation, the miracle moment that would allow [us] to skip the arduous build-up stage and jump right to breakthrough.”
Jim argues that a series of well-executed decisions that compound on one another can galvanise groups into action too. He says: “...Tremendous power exists in the fact of continued improvement and the delivery of results. Point to tangible accomplishments – however incremental at first – and show how these steps fit into the context of an overall concept that will work. When you do this in such a way that people see and feel the build-up of momentum, they will line up with enthusiasm... It applies not only to outside investors but also to internal constituent groups.”
For more detail on the flywheel, including discussion on distilling the drivers in the flywheel for your business, see Jim’s monograph*. Questions it prompts us to explore include:
As you may imagine, this philosophy appeals to me: progress takes time, and I believe in the power of cumulative effects. I also naturally prefer the quiet, deliberate process of figuring out what needs to be done and then simply doing it, while keeping fanfare to a minimum.
Perhaps the key issue is really about inconsistency rather than intensity? As Jim says: “the true signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency”...
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