Few successful start-ups become great companies, in large part because they respond to growth and success in the wrong way. Entrepreneurial success is fueled by creativity, imagination, bold moves into uncharted waters, and visionary zeal. As a company grows and becomes more complex, it begins to trip over its own success—too many new people, too many new customers, too many new orders, too many new products. What was once great fun becomes an unwieldy ball of disorganized stuff. Lack of planning, lack of accounting, lack of systems, and lack of hiring constraints create friction. Problems surface—with customers, with cash flow, with schedules.
In response, someone (often a board member) says, “It’s time to grow up. This place needs some professional management.” … The professional managers finally rein in the mess. They create order out of chaos, but they also kill the entrepreneurial spirit. Members of the founding team begin to grumble, “This isn’t fun anymore. I used to be able to just get things done. Now I have to fill out these stupid forms and follow these stupid rules. Worst of all, I have to spend a horrendous amount of time in useless meetings.” The creative magic begins to wane as some of the most innovative people leave, disgusted by the burgeoning bureaucracy and hierarchy. The exciting start-up transforms into just another company, with nothing special to recommend it. The cancer of mediocrity begins to grow in earnest.
George Rathmann [co-founder of Amgen] avoided this entrepreneurial death spiral. He understood that the purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline—a problem that largely goes away if you have the right people in the first place. Most companies build their bureaucratic rules to manage the small percentage of wrong people on the bus, which in turn drives away the right people on the bus, which then increases the percentage of wrong people on the bus, which increases the need for more bureaucracy to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline, which then further drives the right people away, and so forth. Rathmann also understood an alternative exists: Avoid bureaucracy and hierarchy and instead create a culture of discipline. When you put these two complementary forces together—a culture of discipline with an ethic of entrepreneurship—you get a magical alchemy of superior performance and sustained results.
It all starts with disciplined people. The transition begins not by trying to discipline the wrong people into the right behaviors, but by getting self-disciplined people on the bus in the first place. Next we have disciplined thought. You need the discipline to confront the brutal facts of reality, while retaining resolute faith that you can and will create a path to greatness. Most importantly, you need the discipline to persist in the search for understanding until you get your Hedgehog Concept. Finally, we have disciplined action, the primary subject of this chapter. This order is important. The comparison companies often tried to jump right to disciplined action. But disciplined action without self-disciplined people is impossible to sustain, and disciplined action without disciplined thought is a recipe for disaster.
Indeed, discipline by itself will not produce great results. We find plenty of organizations in history that had tremendous discipline and that marched right into disaster, with precision and in nicely formed lines. No, the point is to first get self-disciplined people who engage in very rigorous thinking, who then take disciplined action within the framework of a consistent system designed around the Hedgehog Concept.