The 20-Mile March

Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck — Why Some Thrive Despite Them All by Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen. (HarperBusiness. 2011).

For the last decade, Jim Collins has certainly been one of the most influential thinkers found in business book writing. He is a “vocabulary creator,” giving us phrases that become part of the current business vocabulary. From Great by Choice we get:

20-Mile March: a set pre-decided “advance” on schedule

This became Collins’ “model” for leadership throughout the book. Establish the goals. Make the progress planned for. Keep moving forward, no matter what…

Mr. Collins tells the story of Roald Amundsen, who reached the South Pole in 1911 and was the first to “undisputedly” reach the North Pole in 1926. He prepared himself, and prepared himself, and prepared himself some more to face any and every difficulty, and then made a critical decision — he and his team would march 20 miles a day toward their goal. Every day.

If the day’s march was “easy,” they would “rest” at the end. But not go a step further. If the day was hard, they would force themselves to make it the full 20 miles, and then collapse. 20 miles a day. Every day. He missed the actual daily goal, but reached the destination, and this unbending discipline was critical:

“Having a clear 20-Mile March focuses the mind; because everyone on the team knows the markers and their importance, they can stay on track.
… Financial markets are out of your control. Customers are out of your control. Earthquakes are out of your control. Global competition is out of your control. Technological change is out of your control. Most everything is ultimately out of your control. But when you 20-Mile March, you have a tangible point of focus that keeps you and your team moving forward, despite confusion, uncertainty, and even chaos.”

A good 20-Mile March has the following seven characteristics:

  1. Clear performance markers
  2. Self-imposed constraints
  3. Appropriate to the specific enterprise
  4. Largely within the company’s control to achieve
  5. A proper timeframe — long enough to manage, yet short enough to have teeth
  6. Imposed by the company upon itself
  7. Achieved with high consistency

In the book, Collins issues a profound warning:

“We live in a modern culture that reveres the Next Big Thing… If you always search for the Next Big Thing, that’s largely what you’ll end up doing — always searching for the Next Big Thing.”

In story after story and line after line, he calls for focused decisions and a ruthless determination to maintain such focus. What’s your 20-Mile March?

Randy Mayeux


Contributed by:
Randy Mayeux
Professional Speaker & Writer
Co-founder, First Friday Book Synopsis

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