Continuing on to Chapter 4 of “Good to Great”, we have “Confront the Brutal Facts“. Each of these chapters reveal something crucial to becoming a great company. In this case, it is the ability to face reality but at the same time not lose faith.
Most employees face the brutal facts everyday. They deal with the world at a level that typically reveals to them the true state of affairs. This is not always true since employees can be sheltered from real world events but for the most part the employees are more aware than the higher ups. As the levels get closer to the top boss, more typically the information is filtered. Something at the bottom that is reported as bad often gets changed into something good at the top. A typical name for this is spin.
Likewise, something revealed at the top as being bad can be spun going down as well. It can be perceived that employees don’t like hearing any bad news and therefore it must be revealed in a positive light.
In “Good to Great” this instead means:
In confronting the brutal facts, the good-to-great companies left themselves stronger and more resilient, not weaker and more dispirited. There is a sense of exhilaration that comes in facing head-on the hard truths and saying, “We will never give up. We will never capitulate. It might take a long time, but we will find a way to prevail.”
This chapter is hard to fully understand. The Stockdale Paradox takes some getting used to. The conclusion is that you first need to see reality for what it is. There is no use in pretending. Being optimistic is not going to make things better. In fact, it is only going to make things worse. Secondly, always believe that you will get through it. See yourself rising above whatever lies in front of you.
So many companies falter when it comes to facing the brutal facts. Years ago when I worked on OS/2 at IBM, it was clear that many things were being done inefficiently. There were scores of people working on the project and yet it seemed like such a hassle to get releases out the door. From an inside perspective, the amount of wasted effort was so high. There were countless status meetings, mindless testing, dictating what would and what wouldn’t get fixed…. going on and on.
Brutal facts are the things you know are there but cannot face. It’s the obvious stuff that somehow goes unnoticed and ignored. It takes courage to face problems that are big. Obviously part of that is knowing that you will come out okay regardless of what happens.
The brutal facts for most companies are largely the same. Much like biology, companies can suffer a form of extinction. As in biology, it often happens because the environment changes and the company cannot adapt fast enough to survive. In the business world, the pace of evolution is much faster. The limiting factors cannot be controlled. However, one advantage over nature is that the crisis can actually be made aware of. In other words, a company can face the problem and come up with a solution over time. A creature does not usually have this luxury. The bigger the animal, the more likely it will become extinct. The same can be true for companies given the inertia and lack of focus.
Some companies manage to survive this crisis, but they never come back into the limelight. There are a number of victims in the computing industry that match this profile. There will also be many more to come.
There would certainly be people at places like Microsoft, Google, and Apple that face the brutal facts everyday. Since the beginning of Microsoft, Bill Gates has always been worried about being overrun by another company in popularity. This basic worry has driven him and his company to be always looking for the brutal facts and pushing towards meeting these kind of challenges. Steve Jobs, as well, is not sitting idle. He knows well enough that you cannot become complacent and that the market is not going to wait for you to catch up.
Likewise, Citrix has its own realm of brutal facts to face. It’s tempting to conjecture what those facts are but I will leave that up to you. There seems to be some reluctance to face these facts currently, at least publicly.
The key message with brutal facts is that you must have faith that you will persevere. It does make sense when these two ideas are tied together. It is kind of like an old fashioned movie. The victim is tied to the rail road tracks and left. The train can be seen at a great distance. The victim is alone. Usually this is where someone saves the day. But what is the victim thinking?
A) What train?
B) My hero should be here soon. I’ll just wait.
C) What can I do to get off the tracks?
The ignorant ones says A. The optimist says B. The realist says C. My point is that the train is coming regardless and unless you plan to do something, you are going to die. At least the realist has a chance. At least the realist has the faith and conviction to face impending death.
Jim Collins also makes some other suggestions that should help move things along. The point is to encourage the truth to come out.
- Ask questions instead of dictating answers
- Encourage debate and discussion instead of silence or coercion
- Conduct investigations into wrongs but without blame
- Create a safe way to raise red flags when things are about to go horrible wrong
- Motivating people and producing vision is not as important as facing brutal facts
- Charismatic leaders can hide brutal facts quite easily (think what it does to make people ignorant)
The sooner you face reality to sooner you can progress. It also means that you get a healthier company that will live a much more productive and long life.
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