Falling, Rising and Bouncebackability

Last April I had the opportunity to sit in on a workshop organised by Kevin Bowring and facilitated by Chris Grant. The workshop explored group dynamics and the final part of the workshop looked at turning around failing teams.

I was reminded of the issues Chris raised when a colleague shared with me a link to a book excerpt from Jim Collins’ How the Mighty Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In. In the excerpt, Jim Collins asks:

How do the mighty fall? If some of the greatest companies in history can go from iconic to irrelevant, what might we learn by studying their demise, and how can others avoid their fate? … Might it be possible to detect decline early and reverse course—or even better, might we be able to practice preventive medicine?

Jim Collins and his colleagues undertook a comparative and historical analysis of their company database that “yielded a descriptive model of how the mighty fall that consists of five stages that proceed in sequence.”

Stage 1: Hubris Born of Success

  • Arrogance
  • Success regarded as an entitlement
  • Lose sight of the true underlying factors that created success
  • The rhetoric of success replaces penetrating understanding and insight

Stage 2: Undisciplined Pursuit of More

  • More scale, more growth, more acclaim, more of whatever those in power see as “success”
  • Stray from the disciplined creativity that led them to greatness in the first place
  • Making undisciplined leaps into areas where they cannot be great or growing faster than they can achieve with excellence—or both

Stage 3: Denial of Risk and Peril

  • Internal warning signs begin to mount, yet external results remain strong enough to “explain away” disturbing data
  • Leaders discount negative data, amplify positive data, and put a positive spin on ambiguous data.
  • Those in power start to blame external factors for setbacks rather than accept responsibility.
  • The vigorous, fact-based dialogue that characterizes high-performance teams dwindles or disappears altogether.

Stage 4: Grasping for Salvation

  • A charismatic visionary leader
  • Bold but untested strategy
  • Radical transformation
  • Dramatic cultural revolution
  • A hoped-for blockbuster product
  • A “game-changing” acquisition
  • Any number of other silver-bullet solutions

The very moment when we need to take calm, deliberate action, we run the risk of doing the exact opposite and bringing about the very outcomes we most fear. By grasping about in fearful, frantic reaction, late Stage 4 companies accelerate their own demise.

Stage 5: Capitulation

  • Accumulated setbacks and expensive false starts erode financial strength and individual spirit
  • Leaders abandon all hope of building a great future

Jim Collins cautions that the really scary part is “You do not visibly fall until Stage 4! Companies can be well into Stage 3 decline and still look and feel great, yet be right on the cusp of a huge fall. Decline can sneak up on you, and—seemingly all of a sudden—you’re in big trouble.”

Two concluding thoughts from this excellent excerpt:

  1. “The signature of the truly great vs. the merely successful is not the absence of difficulty. It’s the ability to come back from setbacks, even cataclysmic catastrophes, stronger than before. … As long as you never get entirely knocked out of the game, there remains hope.”
  2. “The path out of darkness begins with those exasperatingly persistent individuals who are constitutionally incapable of capitulation. It’s one thing to suffer a staggering defeat … and entirely another to give up on the values and aspirations that make the protracted struggle worthwhile. Failure is not so much a physical state as a state of mind; success is falling down—and getting up one more time—without end.”

I wonder if these are two characteristics of bouncebackability in sport or even comebackability.

Photo Credit


NESC Forum 2009: Graeme Joy

Steve Lawrence introduced Graeme Joy. Graeme was the joint leader and navigator of the International North Pole Expedition where he became the first and only Australian to ski to the North Pole..


Photo Source

In this presentation he discussed his North Pole adventure and explored how to be successful as a team of eight people making it to the North Pole.

The journey to the North Pole started at Cape Columbia. The straight line distance from there to the North Pole is 860kms. The team travelled over 1100kms to get to the Pole as a result of sea ice movement. Temperatures at the start of the expedition were -60 degrees.

Graeme presented some of Jim Collins‘ ideas about sustained performance. These included setting a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) for the Pole expedition. Graeme cautioned about idea assassins. The more vocal of whom appear to know least and mobilise failure information.

Graeme discussed personality types and team membership. He identified: drivers, amiables, expressives, and analyticals. He pointed out that we are attracted to people with whom we get along but it is difficult to build a team around this attraction. He considered how directed responsiveness and directed assertiveness were components of the team environment. Graeme pointed out that teams needed variety of preferred styles to enable agility in decision making.

The three members of the leadership team were: a driver/driver; an analytical;  and an expressive/driver. Three leaders were chosen to avoid one leader’s burnout over a two month period.  in the team. It was decided also not to change leaders regularly in a democratic way to avoid constant change in the team’s atmosphere. A team of three provides a sustainable style.

Graeme noted that Level 5 leaders: were ambitious for the team; sustained results; committed to whatever it takes; and accept full responsibility. The team that went to the Pole was selected over a seven month period.  The three expedition founders people made the first team choices and thereafter the team was built with ongoing inclusion in decision making.

The remaining five members of the team were: expressive; analytical/driver; analytical; amiable/analytical; analytical/driver. Graeme believes that “we put the right people on our bus”. Team members had the same view of the same expedition.

Graeme provided details of how the team trained for two years to get ready for the expedition. He provided examples of training in rough ice (there were 2500 pressure ridges between the start and end points of the expedition which equated to climbing Everest from sea level) and the need to minimise all weight carried or dragged (including an eight-man tent weighing 1.5 kgs per person load). The team slept out of the tent in training to prepare for damage to the tent in the expedition. Graeme discussed deliberate practice (Anders Ericsson) in this context.

The aim of training was to address the brutal facts of the journey: recognise the real truth; acknowledge a step by step approach; and to confront real. The Ericsson-inspired approach to training meant that the team  spent a great deal of time on ridge ice. They used immediate feedback and continuous improvement. Graeme observed that “rough ice not pleasant but we got through it”. On the ice you can move backwards by going forwards. But can you move forwards too.

Graeme then turned his attention to making mistakes in training. He suggested these mistakes occurred either because the individual does not know enough or conversely you know it so well you do not pay attention to detail. An example of the latter is a frostbite blister one of the team members developed in training.

The whole aim of the preparation was to deliver the ability to work for set hours per day activity and measured rest intervals. During the expedition the team saw 36 sets of bear tracks. Given the polar bear is one of most effective hunting animals the team sought Inyuit advice about how to manage bear attacks. Interestingly, the analyticals in the team researched this part of the team’s needs.  (This was also the case in learning how to ‘read’ the ice.)

The expedition did receive regular deliveries of resources by plane. Ice splitting example. Each plane drop costs $45,000 and therefore required some skilled people at the home base to ensure all materials were packed for each drop. The provisions were resourced, packed and shipped by an analytical type.

Medical tests were conducted throughout the trip. Graeme shared some images of the frostbite dangers in the trip and the need when necessary to have whole body washes with medicated soap.

Graeme gave some examples of what if training that proved valuable particularly for wayfinding with a sextant when GPS systems froze.

Within the expedition there were opportunities to resolve conflict and Graeme gave an example of an Amiable and Driver interaction over nutrition. He noted that during conflict individuals revert to their strongest personal style. Other team members defused this conflict by addressing the team’s agreed goal and then discussed what (if anything) had changed. The problem was resolved by communication.

Graeme then discussed the role courage plays in forging a team. He noted that the team increased its workload to 12 hrs per day for 20 days. This involved moderate risk taking and a chess game with contours and fissures in the ice. The terrain bred a culture of discipline in thought and action. Fissures in the ice require teams to work together to advance on the ice.

The North Pole goal was achieved whilst supporting a team member who had badly frostbitten toes and a frostbitten heel. The a team removed responsibilities from injured team mate. “We reduced the weight he had to carry because we could not tow him!” The injured team mate still has to decide to make it happen. One foot in front of the other for 20 hours. He was not allocated new roles other than the role to get to the Pole. (There were only two moments of doubt on the expedition: these injuries, and the step up from 11 to 12 hours per day.)

Key characteristics of this experience included:

  • Accountability and responsibility
  • Assessment of  progress
  • Seeking the real truth
  • Solving disagreements and conflicts immediately
  • Understanding differences
  • Embrace and nurture winners
  • Commitment to making the team great