As a one-time summer employee of Jim Collins (as a member of the vaunted “chimp” research team, although really just a small cut above gopher-chimp status) and a sometime aficionado of his works, the single concept he’s come up with that I most find myself pondering is the Flywheel.
A literal flywheel is a very heavy wheel which, because of its weight, is resistant to changes in its rate of rotation. This means that it’s extremely hard to get a flywheel spinning, requiring a lot of energy. But it also means that once you do have it moving, it will keep moving with very little additional effort. At that point, it stores a tremendous amount of energy.
The Flywheel is the central concept of the book Good to Great. It links the early stages, which can be summed up as figuring out which flywheel to push and getting the right people around to push it, with the late stages, where your company becomes awesome (okay, great).
It is rare to find such an apt physical symbol for abstract processes, and the wisdom of the Flywheel is simple. If you want to get anything done, then: (1) You need to keep pushing in the same direction for a long time and (2) When you first start to push, it’s not going to feel like you’re making progress; it will be impossible in these early stages even to imagine the incredible power the Flywheel will have once you really get it going, or how long it can keep gaining more and still more momentum even once it’s already at a good clip.
In some sense these points seem blindingly obvious, a truism; especially point (1). But keeping in mind point (2) and reflecting on the image of the Flywheel can be more valuable than you might think when attempting to change something for the better.
A corollary of the fact that you need to steadfastly push in the same direction (or perhaps more accurately, on the same wheel) is that you’d better identify the right flywheel to begin with. Not just any group of people, operating according to any culture and ethic, will be able to identify the right wheel, or have the resolve to keep pushing it: hence the earlier chapters of Good to Great.
The Flywheel concept applies to any attempt at significant change, notably personal behavior modification. Lately I’ve been seeing flywheels everywhere, and trying to keep the Flywheel in mind as a caution and an inspiration.
I’ll end this post by pointing out again the dualistic nature of the Flywheel: the downside is that you have to push hard and long before seeing results, and you must remain consistent even as your faith that you ever will see them is tested. The bright side is that, if you stick it out, the results you see, and the progress you can continue to make, will be beyond imagination. And that duality might remind those familiar with Collins’ work of another concept that’s worth reflecting upon.