Flight Plan for Success: Business-Management Guru JIM COLLINS Has Some Eye-Opening Ideas about How to Take a Theatre Organization from Good to Great

By Eyring, Teresa | American Theatre, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Flight Plan for Success: Business-Management Guru JIM COLLINS Has Some Eye-Opening Ideas about How to Take a Theatre Organization from Good to Great


Eyring, Teresa, American Theatre


I FIRST BECAME AWARE OF JIM COLLINS at the 1996 Theatre Communications Group National Conference in Princeton, N.J. It was my first conference, and I was in the process of having my mind blown on many fronts. Among the sessions was August Wilson's groundbreaking call to arms, which led to scores of debates and the book The Ground on Which I Stand. An influential new business book was also introduced at a breakout session that year: Built to Last, by Collins and Jerry Porras. In it, the authors analyze the particular traits of "visionary companies." After debunking a dozen myths about what makes companies visionary (including the myth of "charismatic leadership"), they turned to the crux of their argument, emphasizing the importance of a strong core ideology--how visionary companies are in the business of clock-building and not time-telling. And they introduced the concept of the BHAG, or Big Hairy Audacious Goal, a term which has since found its way into the popular lexicon.

Collins, who lives in Boulder, Colo., followed that work with the bestseller Good to Great and its accompanying monograph Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking Is Not the Answer. In these writings, he provides a framework for how companies can consciously and systematically evolve from being good to being truly exceptional. The monograph recognizes that measuring greatness in the social sector--including the arts--is more complex than in for-profit businesses, in part because "in business, money is both an input (a resource for achieving greatness) and an output (a measure of greatness)." But in the social sectors, money is only an input and not the ultimate measure of success.

Collins's framework addresses five key issues: (1) how you define "great" and calibrate success without using for-profit business metrics; (2) how to make the right decisions happen that will ensure the long-term greatness of an organization, through what he calls "level five" leadership; (3) the importance of getting the right people on the bus; (4) how to rethink an organization's economic engine without a profit motive, or the "hedgehog concept"; and (5) how to build momentum by recognizing that success breeds support and commitment, which breeds more support and commitment--and, at last, the big organizational flywheel turns.

I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with Collins this past July. In addition to his passion for the research he does on companies, he is an avid arts participant who frequents a variety of orchestra, opera and theatre events.

TERESA EYRING: Speaking of Built to Last and Good to Great, you made a transition from studying so-called visionary companies to studying companies that you refer to as "great companies." What is the difference between the two, and what made you make that shift?

JIM COLLINS: Well, it wasn't really that much of a shift. When we did Built to Last, we set out to understand the role of vision in organizations. The idea was to find visionary companies and then, based upon how they operated and how they're different from others, be able to impute what makes for an effective vision. What happened, for me, was that I became interested in a bigger question: What makes a great enterprise? What makes a great organization and, ultimately, what makes a great social system of any kind? I'm fascinated by what systematically distinguishes those that, first, become exceptional, and second, are able to sustain it for a reasonably long period of time. At some point, this investigation will go beyond companies.

I'm glad you said that, because I realized that, while your Good to Great analysis deals with organizations, it might also apply to individuals or industries or entire social movements, like the resident theatre movement. Can I apply the Good to Great framework to my field?

It's a wonderful question. We write in Good to Great about flywheels: You build step-by-step and turn-by-turn, and you eventually build momentum that perpetuates itself like a flywheel.

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