Nine years ago, business authors Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen, along with a team of 20 researchers, set out to answer this question: Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not?
The group analyzed seven companies that performed not just better than their industry, but ten times better. They discovered a very interesting key finding. The qualities that business gurus frequently tout as being the main difference-makers — things like innovation, creativity, and the ability to quickly pivot in a fast-changing world – were indeed somewhat important, but it was actually discipline, fanatic discipline, that was one of the true master keys of the companies’ success.
Instead of constantly changing course, making really aggressive moves, and taking big risks, “10Xers” (as Collins and Hansen dubbed these greatly successful companies) came up with a plan, and carefully, methodically, and consistently stuck with that plan; they moved ever towards their long-term goals instead of getting side-tracked by short-term temptations, fears, and changing circumstances. They didn’t panic during stormy periods, nor did they expand too aggressively during good times.
For example, Southwest Airlines made it a goal to create a different kind of company culture, and turn a profit every single year. While the airline industry as a whole lost money during the recession, and other airlines axed employees and lost piles of cash, Southwest achieved their goal, keeping themselves in the black for 30 consecutive years without ever having to furlough a single employee. As Collins and Hansen explain in the book that emerged from their research on 10X companies, Great by Choice, Southwest did it through careful, consistent growth:
“Southwest had the discipline to hold back in good times so as not to extend beyond its ability to preserve profitability and the Southwest culture. It didn’t expand outside Texas until nearly eight years after starting service, making a small jump to New Orleans. Southwest moved outward from Texas in deliberate steps — Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Los Angeles — and didn’t reach the eastern seaboard until almost a quarter of a century after its funding. In 1996, more than a hundred cities clamored for Southwest service. And how many cities did Southwest open that year? Four.”
The 20 Mile March
Collins and Morten dubbed the slow and steady approach taken by Southwest and other 10X companies “The 20 Mile March.” They took this moniker from imagining a man determined to walk across the United States, and how he could accomplish his goal faster by committing to walking 20 miles every single day – rain or shine — rather than walking for 40-50 miles in good weather and then very few miles or not at all during inclement conditions.
The pair later came upon the story of the race between Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen to be the first to reach the South Pole, and they were amazed to discover how the differences in the way the two expeditions were executed also aligned with their 20 Mile March idea. Amundsen beat Scott to the Pole and had a pretty smooth and uneventful journey both there and back. Scott reached the Pole only to face the crushing realization that the Norwegians had been there first, and he and his four men perished on the grueling 700-mile return trip. Collins and Hansen found that among the many other lessons comparing the two expeditions can teach us, is that much of Amundsen’s success can be traced to creating his own plan, and then carrying it out with methodical, disciplined consistency. In other words, sticking with his 20 Mile March.
Your 20 Mile March
As I read Great by Choice, I was struck by how applicable the 20 Mile March principle was not simply to corporations or polar expeditions, but to individual lives as well. Many of the men I see struggling to improve themselves usually tackle their goals through an inevitably fruitless series of fits and starts. They get all excited about a new goal or program for themselves and throw themselves into it with gusto, only to soon get burned out, sidetracked by the next cool new thing, or demoralized by a setback. This pattern leaves an unending trail of unfinished projects in their wake.
I completely sympathize with these gents, because I’ve done that too! But as I evaluate the times I’ve been successful in life, I notice a pattern. It usually wasn’t through big Herculean efforts, or snazzy new productivity plans that I achieved my goals, but rather through steady, consistent efforts. I reached my goals by throwing on my knapsack every single day and setting off on a 20 Mile March.
The Seven Elements of a Good 20 Mile March
In the book, Collins and Morten lay out seven elements that create a good 20 Mile March:
Clear performance markers
Appropriate to the enterprise [or individual]
Largely within your control
A proper timeframe — long enough to manage, yet short enough to have teeth
Designed and self-imposed by the enterprise [or individual]
Achieved with high consistency
Below we take a look at each of these elements one-by-one. Because I think it’s so instructive, we’ll first take a look at how each of these elements played out in the race to the South Pole. We’ll then explore how we can apply these elements in our own lives to create our own 20 Mile Marches.