The Flywheel and the Secret to Success

The Flywheel and the Secret to Success

There’s a popular business-book that was written in the early 2000’s that is still considered to be one of the best books of its genre related to leadership and management in the workplace.  The book is called “Good to Great” by Jim Collins and focuses on many of the key factors, according to the author and his research team’s analysis, that influence the rise of successful companies.

Though a lot of its data is a bit outdated at this point, the principles it points to are still very much relevant today and, perhaps, even timeless.  I know I’ve personally benefited from the principles discussed in the book, not only on a self-management and family-management level, but also in my years at the office, pastoring at the church, in my time as the president of a local non-profit, and now as a small business owner out here on the homestead.

By the way, if there are any fellow farm owners out there (whether your operation is large or small), you have an arena to manage and can benefit from business books like the one I’m referencing here.  The same factors that make big corporations and board room executives successful can apply to farmers and home business owners as well.

There’s a lot of good information from the book I can give you, but one chapter that’s been on my mind recently is called “The Flywheel and the Doomloop.”  The main idea having to do with the importance of “momentum” to any successful business and the need to apply consistent, dedicated effort in order to build that momentum and ultimately be successful.  You’ve got to have momentum in order to take off.   Collins writes, quote:

“Picture a huge, heavy flywheel—a massive metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle, about 30 feet in diameter, 2 feet thick, and weighing about 5,000 pounds. Now imagine that your task is to get the flywheel rotating on the axle as fast and long as possible.

Pushing with great effort, you get the flywheel to inch forward, moving almost imperceptibly at first. You keep pushing and, after two or three hours of persistent effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn.

You keep pushing, and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster, and with continued great effort, you move it around a second rotation. You keep pushing in a consistent direction.  Three turns … four … five … six … the flywheel builds up speed … seven … eight … you keep pushing … nine … ten … it builds momentum … eleven … twelve … moving faster with each turn … twenty … thirty … fifty … a hundred.

Then, at some point—breakthrough!  The momentum of the thing kicks in your favor, hurling the flywheel forward, turn after turn … whoosh! … its own heavy weight working for you. You’re pushing no harder than during the first rotation, but the flywheel goes faster and faster.  Each turn of the flywheel builds upon work done earlier, compounding your investment of effort. A thousand times faster, then ten thousand, then a hundred thousand. The huge heavy disk flies forward, with almost unstoppable momentum. 

Now suppose someone came along and asked, “What was the one big push that caused this thing to go so fast?”

You wouldn’t be able to answer; it’s just a nonsensical question. Was it the first push? The second? The fifth? The hundredth? No! It was all of them added together in an overall accumulation of effort applied  matter how large—reflects a small fraction of the entire cumulative effect upon the flywheel.”

“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.”

In other words, if you’re hoping to be successful at whatever it is you’re undertaking—whether that’s running a Fortune 500 company or running a little produce stand at your local farmer’s market—you’ve got to push forward persistently, progressively, and patiently.  You’ve got to keep at it.  You’ve got to keep pushing the flywheel.

It’s not that one push is more important than another, but it is the consistency and accumulative effect and inertia of your efforts that will ultimately pay off.  It’s the discipline and perseverance of doing what you do—and doing it well, by the way—that will make the difference.

Don’t expect success after only two or three spins.  If you really want the kind of momentum that begins to practically spin itself, you’ve got to do what it takes on the front end and you’ve got to keep doing that until you’ve built up the speed you need.

I know there are so many people out there who fail at what they attempt simply because they get discouraged and burned out because they don’t see the results they’re looking for in a couple few weeks, or in a few short months.  So, they let off the steam and lose the momentum they’ve built and come to a screeching halt.  I’ve seen it happen so many times.

Jim Collins observes that for most successful companies, “the buildup-to-breakthrough” process usually takes several years.  It may take two years, five years, ten years of dedicated, consistent effort.

At the time I’m writing this, my wife have been faithfully working at our homestead now for a little over 10 years.  I can tell you, it’s taken that amount of time for us to really feel the momentum.

Collins quotes several successful executives who all say practically the same thing:

One man explained, “There was no one magical event, no one turning point.  It was a combination of things.  More of an evolution, though the end results were dramatic.”

Another stated, “It’s impossible to think of one big thing that would exemplify [our] shift from good to great because our success was evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary, building success upon success.  I don’t know that there was any single event.”

Still another said, “There was no seminal meeting or epiphany moment, no one big bright light that came on like a lightbulb.  It was sort o f an evolution thing.”  End quote.So, it’s the principle of the flywheel.  Yes, it can takes a lot of energy to get things spinning.  But, friends, the good news is, once things have started to really spin, it usually doesn’t take as much energy to keep it spinning.

For all of those who feel you’re still in the momentum building stage on whatever goal it is you’re working towards, I just want to encourage you.  Don’t stop pushing the flywheel.  Don’t reduce the steam to your engine.  It’s only a matter of time before things will take off.

Or as Jim Collins puts it, “If you continue to push in a consistent direction…accumulating momentum step by step and turn by turn, you will eventually reach breakthrough.  It might not happen today, or tomorrow, or next week.  It might not even happen next year.  But it will happen.”

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