Tag Archive for Collins

See the Big Picture

I enjoy puzzles. I enjoy all kinds of puzzles – word puzzles, number puzzles, brain games, etc. – but in this instance I am specifically referring to jigsaw puzzles, the ones that are pictures cut into hundreds of little pieces that need to be assembled. And I have a preferred method of assembly: first turn all of the pieces face-up, setting aside those that have a straight edge (the outside frame); then assemble the outside frame; finally, begin to assemble the rest of the pieces, looking first for pieces that more obviously fit in the same section together. In the process of putting the puzzle together, however, one of the most important components is not the puzzle itself, but rather, the picture on the box.

It is the picture on the box that provides the perspective and the vision of what is being assembled. It provides a visual landscape that helps in determining the general context or place where an individual piece belongs. It’s a map that lets you see where you want to go. I once used the picture on the puzzle box to illustrate a lesson in a class I was teaching, by giving a puzzle to each of several small groups of people. Some of the groups had the puzzle box, so they could see their picture, but some of the groups did not (and some had all the correct pieces, but some had the wrong pieces or were missing pieces; that served to make a different point). Part of the purpose of the lesson was to illustrate the importance of “the big picture,” or the master plan, for managing a process, a task, or life itself.

Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien, demonstrated the same concept when he and the company of dwarves were traveling through the Mirkwood Forest. As they traveled, the troupe lost sight of the path they needed to follow and became lost, and began to be disoriented. Eventually, Bilbo was sent to climb a tree in order to get above the canopy, and when he did, two things happened: his head cleared, and he could see where they were in relation to where they needed to go (in the movie, he could see the edge of the forest; in the book, he could only see more trees).

Heifetz & Laurie address that idea in a Harvard Business Review article, “The Work of Leadership.”   In the article, they discuss the importance and challenge of adapting behaviors and changes in order to thrive in a new or different environment, and specifically identify six principles for leading adaptive work. The first principle is labeled “Get on the Balcony,” which is explained as follows: “Get on the balcony. Don’t get swept up in the field of play. Instead, move back and forth between the ‘action’ and the ‘balcony.’ You’ll spot emerging patterns, such as power struggles or work avoidance. This high-level perspective helps you mobilize people to do adaptive work” (2011, p. 60). They go on to say that “business leaders have to be able to view patterns as if they were on a balcony. It does them no good to be swept up in the field of action” (p. 60). The emphasis in on the importance of a leader being able to move between the balcony and the field of action, and the necessity of the balcony for providing perspective.

Collins & Hansen also address the idea in Great by Choice (2011), in a chapter that discusses identifying and responding to dangers and changes in the environment. Using the terms “zoom out” and “zoom in,” they point out that effective leaders, “when they sense danger, immediately zoom out to consider how quickly a threat is approaching and whether it calls for a change in plans. Then they zoom in, refocusing their energies into executing objectives” (p. 122). The authors then describe the discipline required to “zoom out for fast yet rigorous decision making and zoom in for fast yet superb execution” (p. 122). The discussion emphasizes the need for effective leaders to be able to step back and zoom out to the big picture in order to recognize and understand the changes and issues in the environment, which then makes them better able to zoom back in and focus on plans, objectives, and details.

The implication is simply this: a good leader needs to be able to see the big picture. Like puzzle pieces, each piece of the context, the environment, the organization, or the situation fits into a larger context, and the leader can best see how it fits when viewing the whole picture. In order to see the whole picture, that leader must be able to get on the balcony, zoom out, and get above the forest to be able to see clearly. Being able to do this will keep him from getting lost among the trees, and will provide the perspective necessary to implement changes and adjustments. Learn to see the big picture.


Collins, J., & Hansen, M. T. (2011). Great by Choice:  Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

Heifetz, R. A., and Laurie, D. L. (2011). “The Work of Leadership,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.

If It Doesn’t Work, Do Something Different

I have tried many different ways to lose weight, and yet, for 25 years, I have remained within the same 20-pound range. I’ve spent money on weight-loss programs, I’ve purchased books on specific weight-loss plans, I’ve followed pre-determined menus, and I’ve tried various exercise regimens. Every time, I would lose weight up to a point, then it would stop. Most of the time that was because I couldn’t maintain the routine or the plan, yet that didn’t stop me from trying to do it again anyway. I kept trying, but it kept not working.

Then something seemed to change. Perhaps it was a different plan that was more life-style based, perhaps it was motivation, perhaps it was simply personal choice, but I did something different, and it worked. Over a period of several months, I lost 50 pounds and increased my overall health, and over the next several months after that, I maintained the weight loss. What was different? Probably several things: I made use of an app on my phone to help me maintain awareness of what I was eating, I incorporated moderate exercise, I weighed myself daily (again, to help me stay aware), I ate a piece of chocolate every evening. I’ve done variations on these in this past, but this time, they were done in moderation and in combination, but not with radical, significant change. I continued to eat what I enjoyed, but modified and in moderation (smaller portions, more fresh foods, but still with lots of flavor); I exercised consistently but moderately (not trying to run a triathlon); I ate something sweet every day, but not in excess; and I maintained awareness every day. The other thing I did was an idea that came from my children: I set two mason jars next to each other where my family could see them, filled one with the number of marbles that equaled the number of pounds I wanted to lose, and each week would move marbles from one jar to the other (or back again) based on what I had lost (or not) until the original jar of marbles was empty, and the empty jar was full. The end result was that I successfully reached my goal weight. I did something different, and it worked. (And I learned some lessons on leadership along the way.)

I’ve experienced the same process numerous times in organizations. Several times, I’ve found myself doing the same thing over and over again even though it hasn’t worked before, and I needed someone or something to shock me into the realization that I needed to do something different. Other times, I’ve entered into a new organization and discovered frustrations over things that were not working, but when I confronted the issues, I was met with resistance because of tradition or history. It took me, approaching the issue with an outside perspective, to come up with a different way of doing things that worked much better. In one organization, it almost became my unofficial motto to say, “then we’ll try something different,” as I worked to resurrect a struggling school. In fact, it was in that environment that I recognized the importance of thinking differently, thinking outside the box, and being willing to question how things were done and explore doing them in different ways.

Jim Collins, in Great by Choice (2011), explains the importance of trying different things as part of the process of identifying what works. From his research, he identified several key practices that were necessary for maintaining long-term success. One of those was something he called “empirical creativity,” which he described as “relying upon direct observation, conducting practical experiments, and/or engaging directly with evidence rather than relying upon opinion, whim, conventional wisdom, authority, or untested ideas.” (p. 26) This concept is explained with the illustration of first firing bullets, then cannonballs; or, testing ideas in a low-risk and low-cost manner, using that information to empirically validate what will actually work, and then concentrating resources on those ideas that have been validated. The idea is, very simply – try different things until you find what works, then put your efforts into that.

One of the challenges for a leader is realizing the need to do something different. Sometimes tradition gets in the way – “we’ve always done it that way.” Sometimes we get stuck in routine and don’t think about doing something different. Sometimes we simply don’t see that we need to do something different, because we think that it will still work if we find what needs to be fixed. Then, we keep doing what we have been doing, it keeps not working, and we keep getting frustrated. Black and Gregersen talk about this in their book, Leading Strategic Change (2003), when they say, “the need for change is born of past success – of doing the right thing and doing it well . . . but then something happens: The environment shifts, and the right thing becomes the wrong thing” (p. 11). They go on to describe the process of change as something that happens in four stages (p. 13):

  • Stage 1: Do the right thing and do it well
  • Stage 2: Discover that the right thing is now the wrong thing
  • Stage 3: Do the new right thing, but do it poorly at first
  • Stage 4: Eventually do the new right thing well

Maybe you are in a circumstance or environment where what you are doing is not working. The right thing is now the wrong thing (or perhaps it was never the right thing). Maybe it never has worked in the past (like my previous weight loss attempts), maybe it worked at one time but not any longer. Regardless, it doesn’t work; and when it doesn’t work, it’s time to do something different.


Black, J. S., & Gregersen, H. B. (2003). Leading Strategic Change: Breaking Through the Brain Barrier. Prentice-Hall: New York, NY.

Collins, J., & Hansen, M. T. (2011). Great by Choice:  Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

Do What Works

It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting different results. Sometimes it seems this definition characterizes companies and organizations, because they will continue to do something even though it doesn’t work. Perhaps it is because it is tradition, or because it takes too much work to change, or even because the leadership doesn’t recognize that it doesn’t work, but they keep doing it.

Motorola is great example of this. In the late 80’s and early 90’s they were a leader in the analog phone business.   They were doing what worked at the time, but then something happened: digital technology was developed for cell phones, which completely changed the cell phone service industry. Analog phone technology would no longer be the technology that would drive cell phone production and use, but Motorola continued to invest in its analog technology, and as a result, ceased to be relevant in the cell phone business. They were no longer doing what worked, but continued to do it anyway.

Effectiveness depends on discovering what works and doing it. Often, it is at a micro-level within an organization that people figure this out. Schein describes it like this: “The general phenomenon of adapting the formal work process to the local situation and then normalizing the new process by teaching it to newcomers has been called ‘practical drift’ and is an important characteristic of all operator subcultures. It is the basic reason why sociologists who study how work is actually done in organizations always find sufficient variations from the formally designated procedures to talk of the ‘informal organization’ and to point out that without such innovative behavior on the part of the employees, the organization might not be as effective” (2010, p. 60). In simple words, the people who are on the ground floor tend to figure out how to adjust formal process and procedure in a way that works best, and they then teach it to new employees, which helps the organization to function better. In spite of what may be the written procedures, they do what works. An effective leader pays attention to this and maintains awareness and understanding of what is working and what is not, and will then use that understanding to help shape decisions.

Then, if it is working, keep doing it (as the old saying states, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”). This truth was evident in the research conducted by Collins & Hansen and published in Great by Choice (2011). They defined a SMaC (Specific, Methodical, and Consistent) recipe as “a set of durable operating practices that create a replicable and consistent success formula” (p. 128), and then noted that highly successful companies “adhered to their recipes with fanatic discipline to a far greater degree than the comparisons, and . . . they carefully amended their recipes with empirical creativity and productive paranoia” (p. 131). However, they also found that these companies “changed their recipes less than their comparisons” (p. 138). Their research revealed that companies that were doing things well and were thriving tended to continue doing what was working without great change. They were not subject to changing with the wind, or panic, or the latest fad, but held to the practices that they knew worked.

This has been one of my personal frustrations in the world of education. In my years as a teacher and school administrator, it seems like I have seen countless new programs and initiatives established, often to have another new one rolled out the following year. They have always been communicated as necessary for effective education, but many times it has reminded me of “stage one economics” – there appears to be an immediate short-term gain or value, but in the long term it is more detrimental than it is beneficial. But before that becomes apparent, the world of education has moved on to a new program.

As leaders, we need to be intentional about doing what works (which is generally evident in the results). And we need to not be afraid of allowing the people who would know best to have input, so we need to give people a voice in the process. This does not mean we don’t periodically assess and analyze, because we do need to make sure it still works, and we can often make minor tweaks that bring improvement. But don’t change for the sake of change when what you have is working, and if what you have is not working, don’t keep doing it. Do what works. And keep doing it.


Collins, J., & Hansen, M. T. (2011). Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational Culture and Leadership (4th Edition ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Put the Right People Where They Fit

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and Great by Choice, famously said that an effective leader gets the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. (2011; 2001)  Usually, this concept is only applied to the general hiring process in organizations, as HR departments and hiring managers make every effort to employ the right people in the company.  However, I believe it is just as important to take it to a micro-level, and apply the same principles to the formation of your team.  When it comes to your team, those principles are, quite simply:  get the right people, and put the right people in the right place.

It begins by getting the right people on your team, and this happens in two ways.  First, identify those people that need to be on your team, and get them on board.  A good leader will learn to understand his personal strengths and abilities, as well as his own “gaps,” knowing that “without an awareness of your strengths, it’s almost impossible for you to lead effectively.” (Rath & Conchie, 2008, p. 10)  He also needs to understand the strengths of those around him, especially where those strengths are different than his.  With those pieces of information, an effective leader is intentional about identifying and placing people on his team that will provide a full range of strengths and abilities.  Where leaders make a mistake is  in choosing people without consideration of how they fit, when people are not “recruited to [the] executive team because their strengths are the best complement to those of the existing team members.” (Rath & Conchie, 2008, p. 21)

The second piece of getting the right people on your team is to remove the wrong people from the team.  These wrong fits to the team may be immediately evident, or may become apparent over time.  “Effective executives know this and check up (six to nine months later) on the results of their people decisions.  If they find that a decision has not had the desired results, they don’t conclude that the person has not performed.  They conclude, instead, that they themselves made a mistake.”  (Drucker, 2011, p. 30) When it becomes clear that someone is then not a good fit, it is time to take them off the team, but a truly outstanding leader will go one step further.  Because he has learned and understood that team member and his or her strengths and weaknesses (at least, enough to know that they do not fit on the team), a great leader will not simply usher that person off the bus, but will help get him on the right bus.  He will help that person move to the place where he best fits, whether that be within the organization, or perhaps even in some other organization.

With the right people on your team, the next step is to make sure that they are in the right place on the team, functioning according to the gifts they bring to the group.  There are a variety of personality and strengths assessments (Myers-Briggs, DISC, StrengthsFinder, etc.), but the underlying premise of all of them as that there are different personality types and strengths (that makes sense, doesn’t it?).  The application of this premise is that those different personality types and strengths will function best in different roles.  Some may be better at analyzing and mapping, others at motivating, or administrating, or planning, or connecting, or any number of other skill sets.  Part of the purpose of having a full range of strengths on the team is so that the leader can assign tasks and responsibilities based on those strengths, and so that, in turn, the team members are each operating at their highest capability, enjoyment, and fulfillment.  Often, when it becomes evident that the team is not functioning well, it is because the leader “didn’t put the right people on the job.” (Drucker, 2011, p. 31)

The most successful – and, incidentally, the most enjoyable – teams on which I have participated have been those that have had a balanced combination of strengths and abilities; so much so, that when a team member left, I became very intentional about searching for a replacement that filled in the right gaps for those that remained.  I have learned my strengths, and I know that I will do best when I can fully operate within those abilities; therefore I know I need to seek out people with abilities that will complement mine.  When that happens, we perform well, we work together well, and we accomplish much.

Collins, J. (2011). Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (pp. 115-136). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap–and others don’t. New York: Harper Business.

Drucker, P. F. (2011). What makes an Effective Executive HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (pp. 23-36). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Rath, T., & Conchie, B. (2008). Strengths-Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow. New York, NY: Gallup Press.


Be Consistent

“Your walk talks and your talk talks, but your walk talks louder than your talk talks.”  I heard my father say this many times when I was growing up, in his effort to teach the importance of being genuine.  The lesson reinforced to me on numerous occasions was that my words – what I say – and my actions – what I do – need to match.  In fact, the reality is that people will judge me more by my actions than by my words.

As I grew into an adult, I eventually realized that I had unconsciously taken on many of my father’s characteristics that I had learned by watching his “walk.” Interestingly, I think the same thing is true in organizations: people within the organization, over time, take on many of the characteristics of the leader.  I’m reminded of the classic parenting line, “Do as I say and not as I do,” which we all know is not what really happens; we tend to do what we see.  That same conclusion was reached by Albert Bandura in his studies on behavior modification and observational learning, most notably in his classic “Bobo doll” study (1969, 1986, 2003).

One of the primary applications of this truth is the importance of consistency in leadership.  In essence, do what you say you will do. I found strong affirmation of this in a recent study by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, which was undertaken to identify “what separates the competent from the exceptional individual performers” using over 50,000 360-degree evaluations on 4150+ individual contributors over a five-year time period. Stated in an article in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, they said, “Walk the Talk. It’s easy for some people to casually agree to do something and then let it slip their minds.  Most people would say that this is mere forgetfulness.  We disagree.  We believe it is dishonest behavior.  If you commit to doing something, barring some event truly beyond your control, you should follow through.  The best individual contributors are careful not to say one thing and do another.  They are excellent role models for others.  This is the competency for which the collective group of 4,158 individuals we studied received the highest scores.  That means, essentially, that following through on commitments is table stakes.  But exceptional individual contributors go far beyond the others in their scrupulous practice of always doing what they say they will do.” (Zenger & Folkman, 2014)

Consistency in what you do is one of the most important factors in your credibility as a leader.  It gives you trust, makes you believable.  John Kotter made the same connection between consistency and credibility when he said, “Another big challenge in leadership efforts is credibility – getting people to believe the message.  Many things contribute to credibility: the track record of the person delivering the message, the content of the message itself, the communicator’s reputation for integrity and trustworthiness, and the consistency between words and deeds.” (HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership, 2011, p. 48)  I had the opportunity to live this out in one organization that had an absence of trust between leadership and employees when I arrived.  In my first year, I became very intentional about communicating publicly what I would be doing (both minor and major things), and then making sure that people saw that I did those things.  I wanted them to know that I would do what I said I would do, so that they could trust me.  My efforts were affirmed when, during an evaluation process at the end of the first year, the consensus of the employees indicated that “trust of leadership” was one of the most positive aspects of the year.

I want to go one layer deeper in this principle.  The consistency of doing what you say you will do is critical to effective leadership, but it will really only work well if it is genuine, and it is only genuine if it is who you are.  In other words, it’s not simply about your actions matching your words, but your life matching your values.  Jim Collins calls this “consistency of action – consistency with values, consistency with long-term goals, consistency with performance standards, consistency of method, consistency over time.”  (Collins & Hansen, 2011, p. 21) Consistency begins with what you say, is demonstrated by what you do, but is validated in who you are.  It is actually at this deeper level that you will find the strength and courage to resist the pressure to compromise in ways that make you inconsistent, especially when circumstances are difficult.

Bandura, A. (1969). Principles of Behavior Modification. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: a social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (2003). On the Psychosocial Impact and Mechanisms of Spiritual Modeling. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 13(3), 167.

Collins, J., & Hansen, M. T. (2011). Great by Choice:  Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. (2011). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2014, April 11, 2014). The Behaviors that Define A-Players.


The Role of Luck in a Christian Worldview

I have recently come across a couple of references to the role of luck in leadership in two different books.  I found this to be very interesting, because it seemed that both authors promoted leadership strategy and intentional behaviors, but couldn’t explain “unexplainable events,” and so relegated these events to the category of luck. As a Christian who strongly believes in the teachings of the Bible, this prompted me to think about the role that luck plays in the Christian worldview, considering the Bible’s teaching on providence (as opposed to chance).

The first reference that I read was in Daniel Kahneman’s best-selling book on behavioral psychology applied to economics and business, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011).  In this book, Kahneman seemed to give a high amount of credence to luck and its role in organizational and individual success, and specifically stated that “luck often contributes to success.” (p. 177) He went on to say, “Knowing the importance of luck, you should be particularly suspicious when highly consistent patterns emerge from the comparison of successful and less successful firms. . . Because luck plays a large role, the quality of leadership and management practices cannot be inferred reliably from observations of success.” (p. 207)  Then he applied this view to the other author I had read that referenced luck when he said, “The basic message of Built to Last [Collins] and other similar books is that good managerial practices can be identified and that good practices will be rewarded by good results.  Both messages are overstated.  The comparison of firms that have been more or less successful is to a significant extent a comparison between firms that have been more or less lucky.” (p. 207)

Jim Collins, in Great by Choice (2011) – which I recently summarized in another post – also addressed the role of luck, seeking to understand how luck impacts leadership.  He couched it in the context of the premise of this book and said, “The very nature of this study – thriving in uncertainty, leading in chaos, dealing with a world full of big disruptive forces that we cannot predict or control – led us to the fascinating question, ‘Just what is the role of luck?’” (p. 153) He assumes that luck happens with and to everyone, and so he then focused on what he calls ROL, or Return on Luck.  His research concluded “that the 10X cases were not generally luckier than the comparison cases.  The 10X cases and comparisons both got luck, good and bad, in comparable amounts.  The evidence leads us to conclude that luck does not cause 10X success. People do.  The critical question is not ‘Are you lucky?’ but ‘Do you get a high return on luck?’” (p. 160)

As I processed these thoughts on luck, I was reminded of a similar concept in a book I read several years ago called Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World by Margaret Wheatley.  Wheatley described the idea of chaos theory in science, and explained that “a system is defined as chaotic when it becomes impossible to know what it will do next. The system never behaves in the same way twice.”  (p. 22) But then she made what I thought was a very interesting and important observation, as she went on to say, “but as chaos theory shows, if we look at such a system over time, it demonstrates an inherent orderliness.” (p. 22)  She went on to describe, in further discussing quantum physics, that “at a level we can’t discern, there is an unbroken wholeness.  If we could look beneath the surface, we would observe an ‘implicate order’ out of which seemingly discrete events arise.” (p. 43) Her conclusion, which she applied to leadership, stated, “When we concentrate on individual moments or fragments of experience, we see only chaos.  But if we stand back and look at what is taking shape, we see order.  Order always displays itself as patterns that develop over time.” (p. 118)

I saw this as a clear illustration of the concept of the sovereignty of God. The Bible specifically – and in a number of places – implies, infers, and directly states that God, who is sovereign, has a perfect plan, and that nothing happens outside of His knowledge and permission, if not direct control.  The result is that there is a purpose and order underlying apparent chance and disorder.  What appears to be chance (or perhaps luck) is actually something that is part of a greater pattern and plan. And don’t misinterpret me here, because this does not preclude the importance of planning, strategizing, and seeking counsel (as stated in Proverbs 20:18 and Proverbs 21:5).  Three verses in Proverbs seemed to me to communicate both sides of this concept – that we are to plan, but that God directs the outcome; this is seen in comparing the first and second half of each of these verses:

Prov. 16:9 – A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.

Prov. 16:33 – The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.

Prov. 21:31 – The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but deliverance is of the Lord

So when the concept of luck, chance, and chaos is filtered through a Christian worldview, we know that we make plans, but we also recognize that things will happen outside of our control; sometimes perceived as good luck and sometimes as perceived as bad luck.  However, if we can view these events through the lens of God’s sovereignty, we can also recognize that God is in control and can trust His underlying order rather than relying on luck. We still do our part – develop a vision and a strategy, make preparations, implement policy and procedure, learn from others, and so on – but we don’t let “luck” discourage or define us, because we can (as Jim Collins also says in Great by Choice) “zoom out” and see the bigger picture and trust God’s providence to have a greater purpose.  It is when we can respond to these circumstances in this way, learning and growing from them instead of panicking, dismissing, or reacting negatively, that we can have the most beneficial “return on luck.”.


Collins, J., & Hansen, M. T. (2011). Great by Choice:  Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow (1st ed.). New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Wheatley, M. J. (1999). Leadership and the new science: discovering order in a chaotic world (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.