Flywheels should never become Millstones.
I had never read Good to Great and have always felt a bit like I missed out on digesting the principles of this oft-cited alleged inspirational leadership cult classic. Probably I should have covered this work within my MBA studies except that I completed my degree in 1982, and this source came out in 2001. Regardless, I looked forward to reviewing this contemporary business classic and looking for applications in the local church.
In skimming through this work, I landed upon and camped in chapter 8, The Flywheel and the Doom Loop. I was pleasantly surprised that Collins’ construct pulled back the curtain ( i.e., the actual wizard of Oz) and revealed the simple cumulative effect of pushing the “flywheel.” Perhaps more than surprise, I was shocked that the magic bullet was not some eureka event but rather the accumulation of small, simple, consistent, daily efforts: “Then, at some point – breakthrough!” Of course, the eventual breakthrough remains a bit of a mystery to local pastors like me. So I am reaffirmed there is no special cause and effect relationship for great leadership (regardless of the hucksters of church leadership resources). Breakthrough, however, continues to remain highly desirable and yet a bit of a mystery.
For me, the fly in the ointment of the Flywheel Effect was the Accumulation of Visible Results. I understand the forward movement focused on one’s vision and the consequential decisions to stay true to the singular mission and not veer down rabbit trails. I certainly can grasp the resultant rallying of followers (i.e., resources) who are energized by the observable results. Yes, this is how momentum is built and then moves the team, the organization forward. But how does this apply to the local church, that is, what if despite our best efforts there are few (and should that be our motivational target?) accumulated visible (i.e., tangible, concrete) results.
While I was reflecting upon my woeful conundrum, I recalled that we were also to read Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking is Not the Answer. Great, now I will discover how Collins’ research secret sauce applies to non-profits (including the Church). I discovered that Collins advocates not the perfect metric but rather “a consistent and intelligent method of assessing your output results, and then tracking your trajectory with rigor.” This admonition is fair and reasonable for the local church, that is, what is our mission and how do we track our output in pursuit of our unique local mission?
While not enamored with the good to great (sounds like athletic coach-speak to me) language, I am seriously passionate about local churches exercising great leadership in keeping with their unique local church missions folding into our Great Co/Mission. We serve a great God, have a great Mission, and should exercise our gifts and leadership greatly (i.e., consistently to the best of our capabilities). However, I am always sensitive about the expected premise of measurable results motivating followers and resources. Collins triggers my angst in his quote for social sectors, “the flywheel effect can still be harnessed by those who demonstrate success and build a brand. People like to support winners (emphasis mine).” My own pastoral experiences compel me to coach pastors away from the western cultural premise that local churches and their pastors are either winners or losers. This false narrative fuels my research and my life’s work every single day.
Despite my activated angst, I am grateful to Collins for his Flywheel in the Social Sectors construct. I anticipate utilizing elements of this construct in my coaching of church planters and local pastors as well as passing this onto my lead pastor to aid our efforts in transitioning towards a new local church mission/vision. We need constructs in the local church to inspire the pursuit of clearly defined local mission utilizing consistent, intelligent methodology along with disciplined follow-up of efforts. The art of utilizing Collins’ construct must inspire while not demotivating local church leadership. If we do not nuance this carefully, flywheels that are intended to inspire will instead become another millstone of discouragement.
 Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 164.
 Collins, Good to Great, 175.
 Jim Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking Is Not The Answer (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 8.
 Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors, 33.
Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors, 26.
9 responses to “Flywheels should never become Millstones.”
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Harry, we share the same angst. I am watching many young church planters getting caught up in the building of a brand and creating a “winning” environment for people to come on weekends. It is a familiar repeat of what we did forty years ago. Unfortunately, they don’t realize that the end result is often crowds but not disciples, and the crowds often follow the latest brand and celebrity leader. My biggest frustration is what it says to those who don’t “measure up” with results. They can miss the importance of faithful shepherding and discipling people to maturity as well as the goal of sending salt and light givers into the world. Sorry for the rant…
You are a delightful colleague and I appreciate your hard-won accumulation of pastoral experience at the local and national levels. You are a pastor of pastors and I connect with your passion and concern. My national leadership is on a much smaller stage, in a much smaller tribe of churches, and really only started since this past summer. I am deeply humbled and grateful that a great leader like you affirms my thoughts and perspectives. You always help me learn and grow, thanks so much!
Harry – this is great and I appreciate your honesty and your obvious love for the local church. I share your concerns and have similar thoughts. I love Collins encouragement to stay the course and not meander or get bored with the mission. I have worked for a couple of very visionary leaders and have noticed a tendency to get bored or distracted from what we agreed was the main thing. That is a real tension for senior leaders – how to stay with something long enough to perhaps take advantage of the flywheel effect and yet that may mean a restraining of the visionary gift to create new emphases. Of course, in the #2 role I don’t feel the pressure to invent and create and make sure there is enough vision – I execute and it is easier to execute successfully if we will stick with something for a longer period of time. Finding ways for visionary, entrepreneurial leaders to do their thing while preserving the focus on the mission has been a dance for sure. Yes, the flywheel is a great concept and it is much easier for me to apply in a business context than in church.
My sense of you is that you are a true Level 5 leader, both humble towards others and willful to execute the mission. You raise a thought I had never considered, “how to stay with something long enough to perhaps take advantage of the flywheel effect…” I am currently working with my first, true visionary senior leader. I will need to remember your pearl of wisdom in order to serve my senior leader and the local church well. Thanks again for your insights!
Good stuff Harry. Like you, I do feel that “activated angst,” the anxiety that comes when one expects success after doing things the right way faithfully and consistently. We expect favor from God. After all, we’re doing His bidding. Then I’m reminded of men of God like Moses, Samson and Jeremiah. They’re imperfect men (who isn’t), yet God used them even though they never got to see or enjoy the fruits of their labor. I constantly remind myself that I may not see or enjoy the fruits of my own labor. I just have to be faithful and trust God for the results.
Thanks for your thoughts Harry! I’m now chewing on the idea of visible results. What qualifies? Can incremental heart changes be measured as visible? What if there is no growth but someone’s trajectory would have been worsening and instead they remain stable? What about if we merely manage to stay afloat in a storm? are these appropriate visible results? Thanks for your persistence in building Kingdom leaders!
Thank you, harry, for your honesty and open sharing. The flywheel concept is real and I truly identify with this. Just as Collins indicated, people like to support winners everywhere. we are all happy when we see the organizations we are involved in growing and turn things around for better. We are happy when we deliver results from our organizations. A good brand attracts many and sells more than an unknown brand. Thanks for reminding us of this great piece from collins.
Harry – as many have said, you’ve captured the challenges so many in pastoral ministry face. How do we quantify the unquantifiable? You’re right in that we cannot measure the work of the Holy Spirit by tangible results – for who are we to judge? While I am convinced that there are outward signs of growth all churches can pay attention to, these signs should not be the markers of church health – we know that growth and health aren’t always the same things. Thanks for your thoughtful challenges this week!
Harry, thanks for the post. We live in an era of ADD leadership with “leaders” continually chasing the newest bright shiny object. I empathize with your frustration. I think that the hedgehog concept is so important for utilizing the flywheel in a constructive manner. I applaud you on your focus to help leaders see these connections.