Turning the Flywheel: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great

By Smith, Roger | Research-Technology Management, January-February 2020 | Go to article overview

Turning the Flywheel: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great


Smith, Roger, Research-Technology Management


Turning the Flywheel: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great Jim Collins (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2019)

At just 37 pages, Turning the Flywheel is a short monograph that expands on one of the ideas in Jim Collins's bestseller Good to Great. As Good to Great went to market in 2001, Collins was engaged in multiple consulting jobs in which the flywheel concept became central to major improvements at his client companies. The core concept is that a strategy is not a linear set of progressive actions but a recursive collection of mutually reinforcing strategies. As with a physical flywheel, energy is initially difficult to generate. But once the flywheel begins turning once, momentum gathers with each circuit--the first turn passes energy to the second turn, which adds momentum to the third, and so on. Each strategy in a series adds energy to the next one, until eventually the wheel returns to the first step, this time with more energy. A well-designed flywheel will continue to add momentum and gain speed with each turn, gradually becoming a powerful, dynamic engine that competitors cannot catch.

Turning the Flywheel expands on Good to Great by illustrating how the flywheel works. The heart of the monograph is a set of case studies of the flywheels created by seven extremely successful organizations: Amazon, Vanguard Investments, Intel, Giro Bicycle Gear, Ware Elementary School, the Ojai Music Festival, and the Cleveland Clinic. This diverse collection of organizations and change initiatives is meant to illustrate the broad applicability of the concept, to large corporations, start-ups, public institutions, artistic events, and healthcare services.

Collins began his deep exploration of the flywheel concept with Amazon; he credits that experience as a major stimulant for this book. Amazon's flywheel consisted of five strategies implemented in 2001. Those strategies appear obvious in the wake of their ensuing success, but they were less evidently logical when they were being defined in the heart of the dot.com bust. The first strategy in the set focused on offering lower prices on more product offerings; that strategy generated more customer visits, which in turn attracted third-party sellers, which allowed expansion of the store and extension of distribution services, which then grew revenue, which allowed lower prices on more product offerings--returning the wheel to its starting point.

Each trip around the flywheel is not just a faster version of the previous journey. The company should seek to extend the flywheel on each pass, making it bigger and generating more energy while remaining true to the core of its success. At Amazon, that meant expanding from books to other kinds of merchandise and adding Amazon Web Services. …

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