Jim Collins’s flywheel concept, from his 2001 classic Good to Great, is one of the most iconic notions in business.
It’s a fairly simple idea: Your flywheel is the big idea or function that powers your business’s success. At first it seems impossible to get it to turn, and it takes tremendous effort to get the flywheel to make even one rotation. But you keep pushing, and pushing, and pushing . . . and eventually this big heavy wheel starts turning under its own power. Now its sheer size is your friend, not your enemy, because now that you’ve gotten it started it’s going faster and faster and no one can stop it.
Most people don’t realize the effort it took to get the flywheel turning, but you do, and that’s why and that’s why you truly appreciate how it’s powering your success.
Your flywheel is the one thing your business does, over and over again, that makes you money. It’s the primary basis for your business’s existence. It’s the one thing you must stay committed to if you want to enjoy sustained, long-term success.
And yet I see a curious phenomenon among many entrepreneurs: They abandon their flywheel.
Collins says you have to turn the flywheel a billion times to really maximize its power. A lot of entrepreneurs don’t have the patience to do that. They’ll turn it 1,000 times, which feels like a lot, but then their focus wanders. They get excited about a new idea. Or they start thinking they need to reinvent the flywheel to get it to turn better or faster.
You might compare it to the mistakes inexperienced painters sometimes make. When you’re painting, you know that a given stroke will often leave the paint with streaks. The experienced painter knows that if you leave the paint alone, it will moderate itself and work all the streaks out naturally.
But the inexperienced painter might not understand that nuance, and he will keep applying more and more strokes in a frustrating and futile attempt to force the streaks out of the paint. The result is likely to be even more strokes, because he doesn’t understand the paint can take care of itself if he just lets it.
That’s the way a lot of companies treat their flywheels. They can’t stop tweaking it, changing it, questioning it, trying to redirect it. They don’t understand the flywheel is gaining momentum on its own, and the best thing they can do is stay committed to it.
Now let’s be clear about something, there are bad flywheels. I don’t want you to stick with yours if it’s hopelessly flawed. But if your flywheel is bad, you’re in trouble because your flywheel is most likely the idea that led you to start your business in the first place. If you’re already in operation and you’re having to come up with a new flywheel, you’ve got a very difficult challenge in front of you.
Coming up with a new one is better than sticking with one that’s proven it won’t work, but it’s not a position you want to be in.
For the most part, my scenario here assumes that your flywheel is basically solid – that it aligns with your strengths and the strengths of the team you’ve put together. That doesn’t mean you should ignore opportunities to improve it.
But how do you distinguish between a helpful improvement and that manic overworking of the paint? Every flywheel is different so it’s hard to answer the question specifically, but I would say this:
When you think of an improvement that excites you because you’ve realized through objective analysis that it’s going to take something good and make it even better, that’s probably a healthy improvement. When you can’t stop tweaking the flywheel because you’re losing confidence or patience, now you might be setting yourself back.
And those who abandon or keep reinventing their flywheels probably don’t appreciate how badly they are setting themselves back. Keep in mind: A crucial element of the flywheel concept is that it’s long, hard work, at first, to get the flywheel to turn. It’s only after you stick with it for a while that the flywheel starts turning faster and faster, eventually turning its size and weight into an advantage, where at first it made things very difficult for you.
What do you think will happen when you abandon the flywheel you’ve been pushing and go back to square one with a brand new one? Exactly. You’re back at the start and you’re once again experiencing the long, hard slog of trying to get that gigantic thing to turn.
I realize this is raising a valid question: How do you pursue continuous improvement if it’s such a big problem to change your flywheel?
This is where a solid change management process makes a big difference. It’s the reason so many companies have adopted standards like ISO 9000. Once an organization reaches a certain size, it’s dangerous if they start making changes on a whim.
There is a clear distinction to be made between mere change and real improvement, and the ISO-certified company is much more likely to a) know the difference; and b) stick with improvement.
There’s an exercise I take clients through to help them understand, and stay committed to, their flywheels. I use sticky notes, and I arrange them in a big circle. Clients move them around for the purpose of ranking what they do best and what they don’t do as well. Those in the latter category tend to be the constraints on the business, and this shows them the importance of minimizing or eliminating those things they don’t do well.
By the time they’ve gone through this exercise, they’ve pretty much identified their flywheel. And having gone through this exercise to identify it, there’s really no reason they shouldn’t stay committed to it over the long term.
Companies who abandon their flywheels – whether out of impatience or inexperience or lack of confidence in their own concepts – contributed mightily to the familiar statistic of most businesses failing within their first five years. There is no reason to let that happen. Just because the flywheel isn’t rolling and picking up speed at first, is no reason to stop pushing.
It’s the reason you started the business in the first place. It’s what you do best. It’s the one thing that has the most power to deliver you success.
So keep pushing, and pushing . . . and pushing . . . and pushing . . . and I know it’s going to take time, but once it picks up speed and really starts rolling, you’ll be astonished by what it can do for you, and you’ll be really glad you stuck with it.