‘Good to Great' Summary, Chapter 8: The Flywheel and the Doom Loop

by The Hyperink Team

This chapter is a free excerpt from The Ultimate Jim Collins Quicklet Bundle.

Collins opens the chapter with a quote from Igor Stravinsky, “Revolution means turning the wheel” (164).  A simple statement, but it essentially expresses the core foundation of the flywheel and the doom loop concept. A flywheel is a device that is made up of a heavy disk on an axle used to smooth a machine’s operation through its ability to store energy, generate momentum and maintain a constant rotational speed.

Collins presents the reader with the task of creating enough momentum to rotate a flywheel weighing 5,000 pounds on a 2-foot thick axle measuring 30 feet in diameter for as long and fast as possible. Herein lies the metaphor for how to create a great, sustaining enterprise.

The image illustrates an arduous task, while simultaneously capturing the essence of the good-to-great transformational process. It takes much effort and persistence to get the metaphorical flywheel to move, but consistent energy in one direction over time helps build momentum and ultimately leads to a breakthrough. There was no one specific event, decision, action or lucky moment that single-handedly helped the good companies transcend the buildup stage and break through to greatness.


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Collins opens the chapter with a quote from Igor Stravinsky, “Revolution means turning the wheel” (164).  A simple statement, but it essentially expresses the core foundation of the flywheel and the doom loop concept. A flywheel is a device that is made up of a heavy disk on an axle used to smooth a machine’s operation through its ability to store energy, generate momentum and maintain a constant rotational speed.

Collins presents the reader with the task of creating enough momentum to rotate a flywheel weighing 5,000 pounds on a 2-foot thick axle measuring 30 feet in diameter for as long and fast as possible. Herein lies the metaphor for how to create a great, sustaining enterprise.

The image illustrates an arduous task, while simultaneously capturing the essence of the good-to-great transformational process. It takes much effort and persistence to get the metaphorical flywheel to move, but consistent energy in one direction over time helps build momentum and ultimately leads to a breakthrough. There was no one specific event, decision, action or lucky moment that single-handedly helped the good companies transcend the buildup stage and break through to greatness.

Collins credits David S. Landes, author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor (1998) with the terms buildup and breakthrough. Collins notes Landes’s description of buildup as “the accumulation of knowledge and know-how” and breakthrough as “reaching and passing thresholds.” These definitions are relevant to the application the terms in Good To Great.

As spectators, Collins notes that we have a tendency to be influenced by media portrayals of drastic company metamorphoses. Consequently, our perception leads many of us to believe that these breakthroughs are revolutionary. The experience from within the company during the transition differs greatly from the spectator’s perception.

The point is that although great companies produced dramatic results, the transformations were produced by a sustainable pattern and organic evolution of accumulated work and decisions. Furthermore, the research found that the good-to-great companies did not launch any particular campaigns to usher in their transformations. No names or tag lines were attached to projects designed and developed to institute massive change at the good-to-great companies. In fact, many staff members were not fully aware of the transformation until it was well under way.

The flywheel effect is a cycle that builds momentum through persistent steps forward in alignment with an organization’s Hedgehog Concept. With the right team, companies can progress by confronting the brutal facts, and having faith that a breakthrough will happen if they consistently maintain their discipline in thought and action. When the business accumulates visible results, people are energized and motivated to keep applying force to the flywheel, hence sustaining and expanding the company’s success.

The alternative to the flywheel effect is the doom loop. The doom loop starts with reaction without understanding; it is followed by a new direction, program, leader, event, fad or acquisition that ultimately leads to little or no buildup. Without the guided accumulation of momentum, results are inadequate, which in turn negatively affects staff motivation.

Mediocre companies are often plagued by chronic inconsistency. Collins illustrates how good companies put themselves at a disadvantage by not adhering to the concepts he outlined in the previous chapters. The biggest mistake companies make is an attempt to create momentum instead of using accumulated energy and progress. A major acquisition executed in order to generate momentum is an example of this. Acquisitions should accelerate momentum, rather than create it.

Companies cannot skip buildup to achieve a breakthrough. These actions become wasted energy used to rally a team around new visions with an often haphazard culture. The strategy lacks disciplined thought and the core strategy of identifying the right people and placing them in the appropriate positions. Leaders at mediocre companies are often moved by fear and as Collin states, “Sell the future, to compensate for lack of results” (184).  

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