What Is True Discipline?

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I had a opportunity to hear one of the all-time great business writers and speakers, Jim Collins, this month. Author of business classics “Good To Great” and “Built To Last”, Collins was talking about his new book “Great By Choice” at a Fortune Magazine event at the Time-Life Building.

My favorite take-away involved discipline and is from Chapter 3 called “20 Mile March”. Collins discusses explorers Roald Amundsen and Robert F. Scott. Amundsen and Scott each sought to be the first to reach the South Pole leading separate teams that left the edge of the continent at roughly the same time.

On December 14, 1911, Amundsen’s group of five arrived at the South Pole. They arrived 35 days before Scott’s group. Tragically, Scott and his entire team perished on their return journey from a combination of exhaustion, starvation and extreme cold. In contrast to the misfortunes of Scott’s team, Amundsen’s trek proved rather smooth and uneventful. So how does Collins explain the different experiences and outcomes?

Amundsen’s expedition benefited from careful preparation, good equipment, appropriate clothing, and a simple primary task (Amundsen did no surveying on his route south and is known to have taken only two photographs). Additionally, Amendsen’s team employed a 20-mile march rule. That is, every day they proceeded roughly 20 miles. Regardless of weather, conditions or anything else, the team kept to the plan of 20 miles. The rigorous adherence to the plan was best exemplified when Scott was only 45 miles away from the South Pole. Not knowing whether Scott was going to beat him, he allowed his team to only proceed 17 miles that day despite perfect weather conditions and the pole well within striking distance.

Scott’s team used a different approach. They hunkered down when weather was really bad and pushed themselves to their limits when conditions were good. They had no regular rhythm. In Scott’s final diary entry he acknowledged that he and his team “took risks”.

Collins convincingly argues that Amundsen’s approach is much more effective. Calling it “fanatical discipline”, Collins explains that great businesses are ones that don’t take un-necessary risks, that plan for contingencies and that stick to their plan with regular efforts.

Our firm is upgrading our database so we can be more efficient and provide better service to our clients. Our software developer requires us to participate on a weekly call that sometimes spans 2 hours. Our weekly “march” is clearly allowing us to get this project completed in a timely manner.

Do you have fanatical discipline in your business? And, if not, could you benefit from this approach?

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