College Football, Flywheels, and Your Shop

Feb. 1, 2017
How to create breakthrough momentum one day at a time

I’m not a college football fan. So when I write this name, please don’t tune me out if you like a rival team. I’m only interested in this guy because of how he leads and because one of my managers is a big fan of his. Ready? Nick Saban.

Nick Saban is the highly intense and often controversial head coach of Alabama Crimson Tide football. What I have come to love and admire about Nick Saban is his focused intensity on getting the fundamentals right. Over and over again he drills his team to not focus on the score, but how to execute the next play that is right here, right now. His maniacal focus on doing the right thing play after play is what separates him from the pack. And make no mistake: He is separated from the pack. It’s like he coaches and plays in his own league. He has led his team to four national championships and groomed some of the greatest NFL players still playing today.

Saban’s disciplined approach appeals to me precisely because it is what I lack. I have written about this before, but when I’ve taken personality tests, I always come back as a “quick start,” which may just be a nice way of saying, “you’re impulsive, you lack follow-through, and you’re undisciplined.” The good news for me and for you if you happen to fall into the same boat is discipline is a choice. Follow-through can be a learned behavior. Being impulsive can be replaced by a new set of habits. While I do not want to lose my edge as someone who can get things moving from a dead standstill, I want to add the ability to see things through. I always, and I mean always, have energy to launch something. Seeing it through? Not so much.

Jim Collins talks about this in his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, as the “flywheel effect.” In his research Collins and his team researched thousands of highly successful companies. One of the key abilities of all the great companies they studied was their ability to overcome a weakness through continuous improvement. The metaphor that Collins employs here is a flywheel.

He writes: “Picture a huge, heavy flywheel—a massive metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle, about 30 feet in diameter, 2 feet thick, and weighing about 5,000 pounds. Now imagine that your task is to get the flywheel rotating on the axle as fast and long as possible. Pushing with great effort, you get the flywheel to inch forward, moving almost imperceptibly at first. You keep pushing and, after two or three hours of persistent effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn.”

He goes on to write about how each turn of the flywheel builds upon work done earlier and it eventually gains almost unstoppable momentum.

My tendency is to think about the breakthrough coming all at once, from some heroic, one time act. However, if I’ve learned anything from Saban and Collins it is this: the daily, incremental, focused efforts are what lead to a sustainable momentum and eventually breakthrough. It’s easy to be amazed by the “overnight successes” but what we often do not see are the years of effort that preceded that breakthrough.

This year for me and my shops our flywheel is going to be operations. In full disclosure this is not my favorite part of owning and running shops! But with steady, incremental effort I’m planning to get that flywheel moving at some pretty high speeds by year’s end. For now though it’s just one turn at a time.

What will your flywheel be and how will you get those first few important turns moving? And more importantly, how will you sustain that momentum? As always, I wish you the best and please reach out to me if i can help in any way.