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Built to Last: A Summary for Visionaries

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What sets apart the most visionary, timeless and inspiring companies and people from those who are merely successful? Contrary to what you may guess, it’s not great leadership, ideas or timing. Rather, the recipe for becoming a visionary and achieving long-term success is value-driven and surprisingly easy to learn from.

Over the course of six years, Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras conducted a study at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business where they analyzed data on companies who were founded prior to 1950 (thus lasted through several eras) and reached exceptional levels of success. From their study, they discovered surprising patterns that allowed visionary companies to surpass their competition.

Last month we chose Built to Last, the result of that study, as our Science of People book club book to learn how, as individuals, we can implement the strategies used by the world’s most visionary companies to become visionaries ourselves.

Here are my five favorite lessons from the book:

Don’t Give in to the “Tyranny of the Or”

Too many people and companies sabotage their own happiness by believing in what Collins and Porras call the “tyranny of the or.” The tyranny of the or is the belief that, when given the option of two good things, you must choose one or the other. You can’t have both.

Here are some examples of how the tyranny of the or can limit your life:

  • I use my free time to have fun with friends or to meet my fitness goals.
  • I can focus on building my career or be a parent who is highly involved in my kids’ lives.
  • I can be sleep-deprived and successful or well-rested and unaccomplished.

Instead of being oppressed by the tyranny of the or, the most visionary companies challenge the status quo by embracing the “genius of the and” and so you can you.

  • I can have fun with friends and stay in shape by inviting them to do fun, calorie-burning activities like hiking, kayaking and dancing.
  • I can build my career and be an involved parent by setting aside special times for my kids and catching up on work after the kids have gone to bed.
  • I can be successful and well-rested by implementing better time management strategies to make sure I have time to get enough sleep.

These are just a few examples. The point, rather than accepting that all good things come with tradeoffs, visionary companies create solutions so that they can get the best of both worlds and so should you.

Are You Driven by Your Core?

One of the key characteristics that sets visionary companies apart from their competition is that they have a core ideology in place that drives almost every decision they make.

You can think of a core ideology like a vision statement except it’s much more actionable. It’s your values and the reasons why you do what you do; it’s what motivates you to keep going in hard times and embodies the factors you think about when making life’s most important decisions.

Whether you’re a big company like HP developing innovative new technology or a parent trying to raise your children as best as you can, having a clear, written core ideology can help you make decisions and prevent you from doing things you may regret because, whenever you are in a situation where you don’t know what to do, your core ideology is there to guide you. You just have to make the decision that most closely matches your ideals.

How do you create a core ideology?

  1. Make a list of your moral and ethical values.
  2. Add the characteristics you value most (ex. Creativity, compassion, friendly, work ethic, etc.)
  3. Use those values and traits to create an actionable statement that embodies who you want to be and what you want to do with your life.

Don’t worry about making it perfect. Your core ideology is purely for you and can be whatever you want it to be as long as it’s capable of guiding your life.

Set “Big Hairy Audacious Goals”

Small, pragmatic goals are easy. They’re the types of goals that you know, if you put in the work, you’re going to achieve. People and companies alike love these types of goals because they give you a sense of accomplishment without having to take risks.

As you might have guessed by now, visionary companies don’t like to follow the status quo so, instead of setting practical goals, they set what the authors call “big hairy audacious goals.”

An example used in the book was from Boeing, one of the visionary companies the authors studied. In the 1960s, an airline offered aerospace companies a huge contract if they could create a jet with features that no company had ever attempted to create.

While other companies were hesitant to take on the challenge, Boeing management gave their engineers no choice but to build the jet.

The lesson here is that powerful goals are the ones you’re not quite 100% sure you can accomplish from the start. It’s like this quote from Richard Branson:

“If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!” -Richard Branson

When you live your life this way, you accomplish more than you ever thought you could.

Allow Yourself to Stumble Upon Success

There is a common misconception that to be successful at anything, you need to have a plan that outlines all of your major steps along the way. The reasoning is, plans give you a sense of direction which ensures you stay on the right track for success.

Collins and Porras argue that, contrary to being developed through strategic planning, visionary companies stumble upon their greatest successes through experimentation and jumping on sudden opportunities.

This is not to say that they don’t do any planning. As large companies they  have to spend an immense amount of time making plans, but in most cases, the planning is not what generates great ideas. Rather, many of their successful ideas came from letting their employees test out new ideas on a small scale and allowing products and services that were designed to be small, grow with demand and transform the companies’ focuses.

So, if you don’t have your five year plan in place, don’t worry. Instead, focus on giving yourself as many opportunities as possible to discover what works for you and, once you find it, invest 100% of yourself into making sure it succeeds.

Your Only Competition is Yourself

At the heart of what makes visionary companies so successful is their belief that “good is never good enough.” It doesn’t matter if they’ve just released a revolutionary new product, exceeded their earnings goals, or become the number one in their industry; visionary companies are never content with their successes and neither should you be if you strive to be a visionary yourself.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t be proud of your accomplishments. Visionary companies have immense pride in the work they do, but more powerful, is the pride they have in their ability to accomplish great things. Rather than being driven to reach certain levels of success, they are driven by the challenge and excitement that comes from pushing their limits and trying to become better every single day.

Because of this, the only person or entity you need to compete with in order to be visionary is yourself. Constantly strive to beat your own records, learn new skills and chase after “big hairy audacious goals.” When you do that, there’s no limit to how visionary you can become.

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