Thursday, May 1, 2008

Closing the Greatness Gap

I've recently been absorbed with Jim Collins' book, Good to Great. It is a fascinating and thoroughly researched book that uncovers the qualities that differentiate merely good companies from great companies.

There are a number of reasons I'm so fond of this book. I'm fascinated by efficient processes, creative and strategic planning, leadership, and most of all, greatness. I have a deeply rooted (and to me surprising) drive for perfection, for greatness. That will surely seem to some to be an arrogant drive and will no doubt explain for some the perception they may have that I am an arrogant person. So be it.

I know perfection is not a realistic goal, but my philosophy is that I may be able to achieve greatness in something or, at the very least, success by striving for the impossible. By pushing toward an unreachable horizon, I place myself on a path to surpass what I might otherwise accomplish if I set a less lofty goal. (Then again, I might just end up flying too close to the sun and plummet to the earth in an ignominious, squishy, and enduring defeat.)

It is this same mentality (or mental instability, depending on your view) that causes me to be so critical of, well everything really, but certainly our government and almost all things "political." Many mark this critical nature as a sign that I don't love my country. These are the same people that shout down any criticism as "blame America first" behavior. They are probably the same people who refuse to take responsibility for their own behavior even as they cry about how other people should learn to take responsibility. To me it makes sense to "blame America first." After all, I'm an American, and I am much less likely to exert any control or even significant influence on the behavior of others. We can't fix the behavior of others, but we can fix our own. Furthermore, it is precisely because I love my country that I am critical of it. I desperately want for us to close the gap between our merely good performance and our absolutely great potential.

And that leads me back to Collins' book. One of the things he notices in great companies that differentiates them from the merely good companies is a real focus on what that company can be great at -- what he refers to as a Hedgehog Concept. I've long observed that most people who achieve some level of greatness do so because of an almost single-minded focus on what they do. This is why, for example, you don't see any truly great two-sport athletes. There are some who have done well in a second sport -- Bo Jackson comes to mind -- but how many can you name that truly achieve greatness in two sports? Bo Jackson was a phenomenal athlete. He was an excellent football player and a good baseball player, but he wasn't great at both sports.

One of the observations Collins makes is that, in addition to finding a focus on what you can be great at, you must also identify those activities that don't contribute to that focus. In other words, great companies are just as diligent about identifying what to stop doing as they are about identifying the right things to be doing. It is that thought trajectory that brings me to this post.

I have a wide range of interests, including politics. This wide range of interests is what ultimately keeps me from being great at any one of them. I'm a mile wide and an inch deep on any number of subjects. The issues we discuss here are very important. The level of discourse, while at times personal and volatile, is at least aimed in the right direction -- finding meaningful answers to the problems of the day. That's a great endeavor, and I applaud Denny for starting this blog and inviting people with differing viewpoints to contribute. I've appreciated the opportunity to sharpen my argumentative skills and clarify my thinking through the process of sparring with each of you here.

But as imporant as the subject matter is, I cannot consistently contribute up to the standard that I set for myself. I do not have the time to pursue lines of inquiry as deeply as I would like. I'm leaving a record of thought here that most readers will take to be an end and not a data point in a process. I'm not comfortable with the idea of leaving a trail of thought that isn't more thoroughly vetted. More importantly, as passionate as I am about some of these issues, the temptation to spend my time and energy here is too great and distracts me from things on which I can have a more real and pronounced impact. I owe my family, my employers, and myself a better effort on their behalf, and I don't feel like I can accomplish that if I'm spending my time here.

So, thank you for the opportunity. It's been great. I hope you all continue to thrash it out here at AHOCF. Denny, Keba, stay safe and be happy. Scott, keep these folks in line, will ya. And if you'd like to stay in touch on a professional basis to discuss writing center matters, I'd love to do so. Chris, I expect I'll see you around and that we'll have the opportunity to quaff some suds together from time to time. As for the rest of you, who the hell are you and why don't you ever post here?

Have fun.

Note: Edited to add a link.