How to escape the hamster wheel

Do you feel you are running on a hamster wheel or a flywheel?

Jim Collins wrote about the flywheel effect in his seminal work “Good to Great”—

Pushing with great effort, you get the flywheel to inch forward, moving almost imperceptibly at first. You keep pushing and, after two or three hours of persistent effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn. You keep pushing, and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster, and with continued great effort, you move it around a second rotation. You keep pushing in a consistent direction. Three turns … four … five … six … the flywheel builds up speed …

Then, at some point—breakthrough! The momentum of the thing kicks in in your favor, hurling the flywheel forward, turn after turn … whoosh! … its own heavy weight working for you. You’re pushing no harder than during the first rotation, but the flywheel goes faster and faster. Each turn of the flywheel builds upon work done earlier, compounding your investment of effort. A thousand times faster, then ten thousand, then a hundred thousand. The huge heavy disk flies forward, with almost unstoppable momentum. 

Now contrast this with the mindless hamster wheel.  You push and push to little avail.  You are not getting anywhere and you are not building momentum.  There is no leverage.

Many owners feel they are not creating any momentum.  In fact, as their business grows the opposite happens.  There is greater inertia.  You work harder and harder and the bottom line never seems to grow, the cashflow situation never escapes the uncomfortable zone, the weekend calls to fix problems don't stop.

Escaping this drudgery requires working on the business not in the business.  You need to be out of the hamster cage and on the flywheel.

So where does our hamster live–we can illustrate this using an original thought by Dwight D Eisenhower:

I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important.

The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.

Dwight D Eisenhower

This idea was immortalized by Stephen Covey in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and I have adapted it here:

Commercial Flooring Business Consulting

The hamster spends most of its time in its wheel dealing with urgent and important issues.  This behavior is working in the business.

It is firefighting. 

For senior leaders and owners living in this quadrant means you will continue to relive the same problems and the business will never scale. 

There is no escape from the hamster wheel. There will always be a never-ending array of urgent and important issues.

Occasionally, the hamster may scurry into the urgent and unimportant quadrant. Without thought or disciplined attention to their time hamsters can't resist getting involved with these tidbits.  This activity should be delegated and dealt with by others.

Business growth and improvement is created by momentum, by the flywheel effect in the important but not urgent quadrant. 

This is working on the business. 

It is fire prevention versus firefighting!

Let's illustrate this with an example. Big Bill, our successful, but erratic salesman at Acme Flooring thinks he has landed a big deal.  The owner is keen to make the quarterly number so he repurposes the regular leadership team meeting to a sales meeting. 

The entire team problem solve around the minutiae of the deal. This valiant effort (firefighting) fails to win this deal.

Next day Artful Annie has the next savior deal.  The hamsters get into the wheel and the monthly planning meeting is consumed with this one. Which they also don't win. Yada yada yada. 

You get the picture.  A series of reactionary meetings and a lack of active planning meetings.

(This is a sales example, you can fill the same drama with an ongoing job, or a problematic customer who is hanging on to retainage)

One person suggests having a strategy meeting to develop a sales plan.  Aha!  Now we can move into the flywheel zone. 

  • We identify what types of customers we want. 
  • What deals we usually win. 
  • What to do at the beginning of the sales cycle, not trying to sway the ineviatble loss at the end of the sales cycle when the cards have already been dealt.

The outcome is the flywheel effect. A more intentional sales process that yields higher conversion rates requiring less firefighting. Businesses that scale, and owners who sleep at night get off the hamster wheel and build a flywheel.

So when you begin this week (think about this on Sunday night or like the horses drawing Cinderalla's carriage turn into mice, you will turn into a hamster) plot your planned activities into the 4 quadrants.  Ensure you create sufficient time in the top right and creatively upgrade your management talent to take over the top left quadrant.

Alternatively, more nuts anyone?

Commercial Flooring Business Consulting