Preserve the Core/Stimulate Progress

Preserve the Core/Stimulate Progress is a concept developed in the book Built to Last. Enduring great organizations exhibit a dynamic duality. On the one hand, they have a set of timeless core values and purpose that remain constant over time. On the other hand, they have a relentless drive for progress—change, improvement, innovation, and renewal. Great organizations keep clear the difference between their core values (which never change), and operating strategies and cultural practices (which endlessly adapt to a changing world).
Excerpts from Built to Last

Core ideology in a visionary company works hand in hand with a relentless drive for progress that impels change and forward movement in all that is not part of the core ideology. The drive for progress arises from a deep human urge—to explore, to create, to discover, to achieve, to change, to improve. The drive for progress is not a sterile, intellectual recognition that “progress is healthy in a changing world” or that “healthy organizations should change and improve” or that “we should have goals”; rather, it’s a deep, inner, compulsive—almost primal—drive.

It is the type of drive that led Sam Walton to spend time during the last precious few days of his life discussing sales figures for the week with a local store manager who dropped by his hospital room—a drive shared by J. Willard Marriott, who lived by the motto “Keep on being constructive, and doing constructive things, until it’s time to die ... make every day count, to the very end.”

…Like a persistent and incurable itch, the drive for progress in a highly visionary company can never be satisfied under any conditions, even if the company succeeds enormously … The drive for progress doesn’t wait for the external world to say “It’s time to change” or “It’s time to improve” or “It’s time to invent something new.” No, like the drive inside a great artist or prolific inventor, it is simply there, pushing outward and onward. You don’t create Disneyland, build the 747, pursue six-sigma quality, invent 3M Post-it notes, institute employee stock ownership in the 1880s, or meet with a store manager on your deathbed because the outside environment demands it. These things arise out of an inner urge for progress. In a visionary company, the drive to go further, to do better, to create new possibilities needs no external justification.

The interplay between core and progress is one of the most important findings from our work. In the spirit of the “Genius of the AND,” a visionary company does not seek mere balance between core and progress; it seeks to be both highly ideological and highly progressive at the same time, all the time. Indeed, core ideology and the drive for progress exist together in a visionary company like yin and yang of Chinese dualistic philosophy; each element enables, complements, and reinforces the other:

  • The core ideology enables progress by providing a base of continuity around which a visionary company can evolve, experiment, and change. By being clear about what is core (and therefore relatively fixed), a company can more easily seek variation and movement in all that is not core.
  • The drive for progress enables the core ideology, for without continual change and forward movement, the company—the carrier of the core—will fall behind in an ever-changing world and cease to be strong, or perhaps even to exist.

Although the core ideology and drive for progress usually trace their roots to specific individuals, a highly visionary company institutionalizes them—weaving them into the very fabric of the organization. These elements do not exist solely as a prevailing ethos or “culture.” A highly visionary company does not simply have some vague set of intentions or passionate zeal around core and progress. To be sure, a highly visionary company does have these, but it also has concrete, tangible mechanisms to preserve the core ideology and to stimulate progress. Tangible. Concrete. Specific. Solid. Look inside a visionary company and you’ll see a ticking, bonging, humming, buzzing, whirring, clicking, clattering clock. You’ll see tangible manifestations of its core ideology and drive for progress everywhere. Intentions are all fine and good, but it is the translation of those intentions into concrete items—mechanisms with teeth—that can make the difference between becoming a visionary company or forever remaining a wannabe.