Friday, January 20, 2012

Why You Can Always Be Great

There is always a book in my briefcase.
For the past week it has been “Great By Choice” by Collins and Hansen. I decided to read this due to its popularity, though I at all times keep in mind the doubts about the research methodology discussed by Rozenzweig in “The Halo Effect”.
However, things do not always have to be rigorously true in order for us to glean something useful from them, and with that spirit in mind I think there are some things in this book we can look at.
Today we will look at one of them.

The Tortoise and the Hare
According to Collins, one of the traits exhibited by “Great” companies is “Fanatic Discipline”. The practice of the “20 Mile March” is used as a symbol and metaphor for this characteristic.
The book introduces this metaphor through a comparison of 2 people walking from Los Angeles to Maine in the United States. Person A walks 20 miles every day consistently, be it rain, sleet, snow or hail (kind of like the mailman). Person B walks 40 miles on a good day, and hunkers down in bad weather, or to recuperate.
The outcome is somewhat reminiscent of the Tortoise and Hare fable. Person A, plodding along no matter what, arrives in Maine well before Person B.
Collins further illustrates this point by comparing the successful South Pole expedition of Amundsen with the failed one of Scott. Amundsen made it, and Scott died trying. Amundsen happened to move forward almost every day, even in the face of gale force antarctic winds, while Scott, who mixed all out pushes with intermittent breaks, did not.
Even when good weather would allow for a 24 hour push to complete the remaining 45 miles to the South Pole objective, the Amundsen party only traveled 17 that day.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable
According to Collins: “The 20 Mile march creates two types of self-imposed discomfort: (1) the discomfort of unwavering commitment to high performance in difficult conditions, and (2) the discomfort of holding back in good conditions.”
In other words, we keep going when we are down, and we do it despite a plethora of excuses we could use to justify not doing it. And we leave a lot on the table even when we could legitimately take it.
It is this dual natured fact that creates for us such a golden opportunity.

We’re Only Human
The behavioral field of psychology posits two main objectives for us humans – pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. People are generally programmed for these two objectives (according to this theory).
So if we contrast the “Fanatic Discipline” of the great, we have the following:
Great Organizations
Human Nature
Undertake painful activities
Avoid painful activities
Leave good things on the table
Pursue pleasurable activities

Great organizations are in conflict with human nature. For this reason, few will be able to undertake them. Few will want to.
Even those that begin with the intention to become great are likely to be talked out of it by their reasonable sounding advisors, friends, families, stockholders, other stakeholders, and the press.
The result is that very, very, very few will even seek to achieve it. So we don’t have any real competition…

It’s New Years Day
…except ourselves. And this is the critical part. We will have continuous conflict within ourselves, because we are going against human nature to accomplish this.
Going to the fitness center is usually fairly easy, there is always a locker, and a stair-master, and a set of weights available to use…except for the first few weeks of January. That’s when the place is over-run by the New Year’s resolution folks, vowing to get in shape.
However, by the end of the month, the place is back to normal again. Why?
Because to maintain that New Year’s vow means to go against human nature, to willingly seek out discomfort (when I first heard the term “no pain no gain” it was in a weightlifting context), and to avoid pleasure. Fact is, most people cannot do it.

Some Steps You Can Take
Remind yourself everyday of the objective – a key theme in Shunry Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginners Mind” is the dedicated practice of meditation, which you undertake for its own sake, without any idea of benefit, everyday, without fail. While you do not necessarily need to practice Zen meditation to achieve a great finance and treasury objective, you need to focus on it with just as much determination as a Zen practitioner approaches their mediation activity, and with a similar attitude.
Make the goal real now – create a vivid and compelling sense of the goal using all five of your senses – what will things look like if it is achieved? What will you hear, from yourself and others? What will you feel? Smell? Taste?
Access your resourceful and motivational states – the field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming tells us to find instances in our past where we were motivated and committed in order to replicate and re-create them. When in the past did you achieve a goal? What did you picture to yourself that kept you motivated? What did you tell yourself? What feelings did you generate? Codify these processes and repeat them for the current objective.
Focus on What You Can Control – the first I heard of the different “Zones of Control” was in Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and it breaks down like this: there are areas you control, areas you influence, and areas where you can’t do anything about. Focus on what you control and increase that zone wherever possible. Minimize your focus on the other areas.

Key Takeaways
We can take our organizations to greatness, provided we are willing to not be too greedy during good times and not allow bad times to knock us off track.

·         What activities do you practice that keeps you on track to meet your goals?

Add to the discussion with your thoughts, comments, questions and feedback! Please share Treasury Café with others. Thank you!


  1. Great post. I'd like to check out "Great by Choice." One thing I like to do to keep on track is to keep visual reminders of my goals. Whether it's reaching a certain number of members at our site at work (hanging a banner with that number on it) or healthful goals (pinning pictures of healthy and appetizing meals to the fridge) or a goal to stay in better touch with friends or family (putting pictures of these loved ones on my dash or desk.) I find these to be great reminders.
    -Errin @PuzzledTweeter

  2. Errin,

    Whether we are aware of it or not, we constantly take in information from our environment. Your suggestions use that fact to great advantage! Thank you for taking the time to add to the discussion!