Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Good to Great: The Culture of Discipline


The book, Good to Great, by Jim Collins is a study of several companies and their successes over a 15 year period. What I discovered as I read the book is that the principles and virtues that made great CEOs and great companies are very consistent with what made for successful missions and apostolates in Church history. In other words, Good to Great principles are Christian in essence. They are a subtle reflection of those principles and virtues that made the Apostles, the Church Fathers, martyrs, confessors, and Saints great. Although Collins does not intentionally correlate business success with ministerial or missionary success, the correlation is there nevertheless.

The value of Good to Great can serve a purpose for all Catholics who aspire to lead, not just a small business, but any mission that advances the kingdom of God. No doubt, we can learn from what Collins discovered.


Introduction to Chapter 6: The Culture of Discipline

St. Paul wrote St. Titus with this admonition: Be open to every good enterprise! The findings of the private sector success can, with proper distinctions in mind, bring light to the mission of saving souls; especially as it pertains to Catholic dioceses and apostolates. Too often such organizations completely stray from a system that allows for initiative, creativity and risk-taking because they can, in some cases, lack the culture of discipline. Without disciplined people the task of venturing into uncharted waters can be hazardous. But without the ability to venture and expand horizons, missions rarely ever become truly great.

Did not our Lord characterize his followers being unconventional and outside of the box when he told Nicodemus the following: “The wind  blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Now, this, to be sure, would make any bureaucrat nervous. No doubt, obedience to God is one of order and subordination to higher spiritual authorities. And unlike a healthy egalitarian atmosphere in good-to-great companies, the Church does involve a chain of command or a hierarchy, if you will. Nevertheless, the Gospels, the Book of Acts and even Epistles in the New Testament make it clear that a great deal of room must be left to individual initiatives through the promptings of the Holy Spirit. After all, He moves where He wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where He comes from or where He goes.

The Saints respected procedures, routine and conventions but they were not, and refused to be, bound by them if the God willed otherwise or if circumstances warranted it. Whenever monasteries, missions, religious orders and apostolates throughout Church history were populated with men and women who were acquainted with the spirituality of self-denial and self-discipline, these institutions and endeavors flourished and hence became a font of renewal for the Church. Although Jim Collins book, Good-to Great, immerses itself into the business of the world, it can offer a number of insights for Catholics and their quest to glorify God.

Chapter 6: The Culture of Discipline

“Few successful start-ups become great companies, in large part because they respond to growth and success in the wrong way. Entrepreneurial success is fueled by creativity, imagination, bold moves into uncharted waters, and visionary zeal. As a company grows and becomes more complex, it begins to trip over its own success- too many new people, too many new customers, too many new orders, too many new products. What was once great fun becomes an unwieldy ball of disorganized stuff. Lack of planning, lack of accounting, lack of systems, and lack of hiring constraints create friction. Problems surface- with customers, with cash flow, with schedules.

In response, someone (often a board member) says, ‘It’s time to grow up. This place needs some professional management.’ The company begins to hire MBA’s and seasoned executives from blue-chip companies. Processes, procedures, checklists, and all the rest begin to sprout like weeds. What was once an egalitarian environment gets replaced with a hierarchy. Chains of command appear for the first time. Reporting relationships become clear, and an executive class with special perks begins to appear. ‘We’ and ‘they’ segmentations appear- just like in a real company.

The professional managers finally rein in the mess. They create order out of chaos, but they also kill the entrepreneurial spirit. Members of the founding team begin to grumble, ‘This isn’t fun anymore. I used to be able to just get things done. Now I have to fill out these stupid forms and follow these stupid rules. Worst of all, I have to spend a horrendous amount of time in these useless meetings.’  The creative magic begins to wane as some of the most innovative people leave, disgusted by the burgeoning bureaucracy and hierarchy.  The exciting start-up transforms into just another company, with nothing special to recommend it. The cancer of mediocrity begins to grow in earnest.

George Rathmann [cofounder of Amgen, a biotechnology company] avoided this entrepreneurial death spiral. He understood that the purpose of a bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline- a problem that largely goes away if you have the right people in the first place. Most companies build their bureaucratic rules to manage the small percentage of wrong people on the bus, which in turn drives away the right people on the bus, which then increases the percentage of wrong people on the bus, which increases the need for bureaucracy to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline, which then further drives the right people away, and so forth. Rathmann also understood that an alternative exists: Avoid bureaucracy and hierarchy and instead create a culture of discipline. When you put these two complimentary forces together- a culture of discipline with an ethic of entrepreneurship- you get a magical alchemy of superior performance and sustained results…”

With this, “You’ve got to have management and people who believe in the system and who do whatever is necessary to make the system work. But within the boundaries of that system, store managers had a lot of leeway, to coincide with their responsibility…”

“It all starts with disciplined people. The transition starts not by trying to discipline the wrong people into the right behaviors, but getting self-disciplined on the bus in the first place. Next we have disciplined thought. You need discipline to confront the brutal facts of reality, while retaining resolute faith that you can and will create a path to greatness. Most importantly, you need the discipline to persist…Finally, we have disciplined action, the primary subject of this chapter. This order is important. The comparison companies [other not-so-successful companies] often tried to jump into disciplined action. But the disciplined action without self-disciplined people is impossible to sustain, and disciplined action without disciplined thought is a recipe for disaster.”