By Frank J. Rich
In thinking about the opportunity that exists in each of those I work with, I’m ever seeking that essential and simple direction that will influence best practices. It presents both opportunity and unique challenges. Gladly, the diversity joins unused brain cells in the gambol toward more effective responses to both. The result has caused something of an epiphany—“a sudden intuitive leap of understanding”—but which more accurately represents a growing appreciation for accumulated knowledge and experience.
The sense that all have felt of being overwhelmed by both the sheer number and immediacy of the challenges we face tends to drive us in two directions. We are either stuck at START, unable to move toward any of the things facing us for an immobilizing focus on all of them at the same time, or we narrow our focus on one thing at a time until all are done or delegated. But the simple wisdom in the approach masks the tension that acts like an emergency brake on a car that just won’t release for having been so seldom used. It’s stuck, like us!
As those of you who read my columns have discovered, I am fond of the character Curly in the film City Slickers. His wisdom is summed up in one expression to the erstwhile cowboys who left the city and their reliance on its conveniences for a trail ride that loses its luster in the hard work of managing cattle on the open range and the grimy and spare conditions of the plain. It is, as he literally points out, one thing! Challenged by the simplicity of it and the anxiety it produces, Billy Crystal is finally driven to ask of Curly just what that one thing might be. Curly leads him on awhile, perhaps to emphasize the value in it, then pronounces it as though it were virtue from on high. “One thing,” he says. “Just do one thing at a time, and do it well and you’ll enjoy success at everything you do.”
“That’s it?” Crystal blurts incredulously?
Our tendency is to see the world as a complex society, unmanageable for its twists and turns. The unpredictable winnowing of order from chance seems far too intricate a puzzle for our daily portion of hours at work to solve. But much like the fox and the hedgehog as depicted in the well-known essay by Isaiah Berlin, there is a need to simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything we do.
But what does this concept have to do with you and the daunting task of preparing an organization for greatness? In his description of the “Flywheels and the Doom Loop,” Jim Collins (Good to Great) models the struggle that is necessary to the success of key initiatives. It is the persistence of a long obedience in the same direction that wins the day. Much like the hedgehog that curls into an impenetrable ball whenever the fox approaches, a single concept that is worked well is the answer.
We have learned that no matter how important or world shattering the end result, transformations do not happen overnight by the power of a single act. Rather, they succeed by the deliberate and focused application of a simple guiding principle—small steps, one at a time, decision-by-decision, push-by-push, of the wheel of progress.
In his effort to inform the method by which post-war nations could revive their industries, Edward Deming fostered the idea of small, continuous improvement, what would later be known as The Kaizen Way, the Japanese name for it. He reasoned that we are so used to living with minor annoyances that it was not easy to identify them or to make corrections to overcome them. Quite oppositely, he discovered these annoyances had a way of growing in size and complexity and eventually blocking the way to change. His breakthrough? Train oneself to spot and solve small problems so as to avoid more sizeable and painful solutions later in the process.
It seems all too simple. In fact, by itself the idea is little more than pleasurable to consider. But the bane of most middle managers, the “how to” in the method, is the deliverance of a dry match in the darkness. With success as the goal, it is necessary to reduce the first step to the smallest possible accomplishment. Once it has been achieved and you have tasted its nectar, it is appropriate to take another. Soon, you will recognize when next steps are automatic, effortless, and joyful. Don’t allow anyone to pressure you into a change of pace—up or down—if it doesn’t feel right to you, Deming urged. Just return to the mind of the hedgehog as you gain the confidence of a practice that works.