Jim Collins opened his landmark study of corporate performance with one sentence: Good is the enemy of great. In his search for the determinants of corporate greatness, he characterized his research effort as akin to looking inside a black box, using the following illustration:
At the core of his research was a systematic process of comparing companies with average performance to companies with great performance by always asking, “what’s different?” Why do some companies achieve breakthrough performance while others don’t? This is really just another way of asking: “Why are some companies capable of achieving acceleration, while others are not?”
In the physical world, it is the natural tendency of all objects to resist changes in their state of motion. Said another way, objects tend to like to keep doing what they’re doing. Newton accurately described this tendency in his First Law of Motion (also known as the Law of Inertia): an object at rest remains at rest unless acted on by an external force.
The tendency of an object to resist a change in its state of motion varies with mass. In physics, inertial mass is defined as the quantitative measure of an object’s ability to resist a change in its velocity. Expressed in the equation: F/m = a, the more mass (m) an object has, the less it will accelerate (a) when exposed to a force (F).
So, back to the question expressed in Collins’ illustration: what’s inside the black box? The answer is mass.
The tendency of people everywhere (myself included), is to keep doing what they’ve been doing. As a result, people are the principal component of inertia in every organization, from the smallest start-up to the largest multinational corporation.
When you distill the six components of Collins’ entire framework (Level 5 Leadership, First Who – Then What, Confront the Brutal Facts, The Hedgehog Concept, A Culture of Discipline, Technology Accelerators), what he’s really talking about is finding a way to lower the inertial mass of an organization to a threshold where acceleration is possible.
In upcoming posts, we’ll explore the concept of organizational mass in more detail, leading to a quantitative definition and proposed system of units.
Until then, if you have a few minutes, I would encourage you to take a look at the following YouTube video. It was recorded in 1997, 4 years before the first publication of Good to Great. See if you can spot the moment where the speaker effectively lowers the inertial mass of the audience (who clearly want to keep doing what they’ve been doing).