When Good Is Better Than Great

Many of us attempt to become great without first being good. We all want to be the best in the world.  Individuals set optimistic New Year’s resolutions that do not last into February.  Companies propose “hockey stick” strategic plans that call for 15 percent growth every year for the next seven years.  Leaders set “stretch targets,” propose BHAGs (big, hairy, audacious goals), and endeavor to become “world class.”

Sure, becoming great sells, and shooting for super is sexy.  Business and leadership books about greatness sell by the truckload.  Jim Collins has done exceedingly well with Good to Great and Great by Choice. Thomas Friedman writes book after book about how we need to become hypergreat in our hypercompetitive world.

But let’s face reality: 99.9999 percent of us will not become the Lionel Messi of soccer or the Steve Jobs of innovation. And 99.99 percent of companies will not become Apple or Amazon.

This aspiration to greatness can be harmful.  We shoot for the stars only to shoot ourselves in the foot.

Striving for unrealistic goals (and the incentives around achieving them) distorts a company’s and an individual’s reality, inescapably leading to significant personal stress, possible ethical violations and business disruption.

Companies often undertake complex projects or initiatives that they are incapable of successfully implementing. These projects inevitably divert attention and resources away from critical needs and frustrate and exhaust the employees.

In the process, companies forget the business basics that enable them to do a good job for the customer:

• Delivering on what they say

• Customer service (with a smile)

• Working on the daily continuous improvements and innovations

As president and chief operations officer, I would sometimes lead my vice presidents and general managers through a visualization exercise.  I ask them to imagine what their businesses would be like if everyone was aligned and everyone was doing good (not great) work.  It always became apparent that the business would be excelling and far more profitable.

The purpose of this exercise is to point out areas where their divisions are underperforming, and to highlight the enormous time, effort and cost needed to make up for this underachievement. We overestimate what we can do in six months, but underestimate what we can do in three years.

In any company, solving the small problems and having the company work well in all areas is absolutely achievable.  It just requires a focus on business fundamentals and continuous improvement.  It is this continual, daily effort over the long-term that will pay off.

In short, if each of us works daily to just become good in all that we do, we would transform ourselves and our companies.

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