Time Spent Getting Ready for the Next Challenge is Successful Work – a Lesson from President Obama, with a slight quibble with Jim Collins

Obama on Daily Show“A lot of the work that we did early starts bearing fruit, late,” the president told Stewart, before joking that you get better as “you get experience.”
President Barack Obama, on his last appearance on The Daily Show



This is worth pondering.

We seem to live and die by the progress and success of this quarter, this month, this week, this day… this hour. The internet era seems to have shrunk the demand-for-success-schedule on the calendar to even smaller increments.

The news this morning, as I write this, is the disappointment in Apple’s earnings report. Yet, they still surpassed the same quarter last year, and they really are doing just… well, it looks pretty successful to me.

In Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck — Why Some Thrive Despite Them All by Jim Collins, Mr. Collins feltGreat-By-Choice he had to defend his “low” rating for Apple from his earlier writings. Here’s what he wrote:

Regarding the selection of Apple as a comparison case, we’re aware that as of this writing in 2011, Apple stands as one of the most impressive comeback stories of all time. Our research lens for the Microsoft-versus-Apple contest focused on the 1980s and 1990s, when Microsoft won big and Apple nearly killed itself. Companies can indeed change over time, from comparison to 10X, and vice versa. It is always possible to go from good to great.

And, here’s what I think. In Great by Choice, Mr. Collins describes in great detail the 20 Mile March, the discipline practiced by Roald Amundsen and his team as they prepared to make their trek to the South Pole. My observation – maybe Apple was just as “great” in those comparison years, before the “success” was achieved. If you think about Collins’ argument/analogy, Roald Amundsen would not have made his list as a “great” example until he reached the South Pole. But the years he and his team spent “getting ready” were clearly as important as the year he actually made the journey. Clearly, they were as “great” getting ready as they were when they finally arrived, don’t you think?

So, in other words, maybe Jim Collins needs to adjust his definitions, his metrics, of “great.”

Maybe Apple was “getting ready” in the years they were eclipsed by Microsoft. And, maybe, they were a great company in those years also.
Maybe successful business requires: getting ready; then cashing in; then getting ready for the next challenge; and then, cashing in again.

I don’t know if Apple is about to leap forward again (with a car?; a tv?: the next iteration of the Apple Watch?), or if, in fact, their Apple is tarnished.

But I do think this – this fixation on this quarter’s, this month’s, this week’s, this hour’s success is maybe not always that productive. Maybe a company does not have to hit the numbers in time to make Jim Collins’ next list of great companies to prove that they are successful. Maybe some companies are working on a longer time horizon than Mr. Collins’ publishing schedule.

Or, to –paraphrase President Obama, maybe early work bears fruit later.


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