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Do you remember Aesop’s Fable called The Hare and the Tortoise? The hare thought he was pretty darn smart because he was so fast. He challenged Mr. Tortoise to a race because he was so sure he’d win. But guess what? Mr. Hare was also cocky, so cocky that he actually took a nap while he waited for Mr. Tortoise to catch up. By the time he woke up, Mr. Tortoise was near the finish line. His slow but steady progress resulted in victory.

As it turns out, this story has merit as more than just a kids’ bedtime story. This fable closely mirrors the 1911 race to the South Pole by Roald Amundsen (winner) and Robert Falcon Scott (loser). And both of these stories have unexpected relevance in the business world.

According to Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen, co-authors of the book Great by Choice, there’s a direct correlation between the different operating procedures of Amundsen and Scott and those of business executives in high-performing companies versus their lower-performing competitors. The results of Collins’s and Hansen’s study provide guidance for companies trying to navigate through the chaos and uncertainty of our times.

A Quick History Lesson

For those unfamiliar with the race to the South Pole, here’s a quick recap. 

In October 1911, two expeditions set out to reach the South Pole for the first time. The teams left within days of each other and experienced the same conditions – subzero temperatures, gale-force winds, deep snow, and rough terrain – but the leaders took slightly different routes and completely different approaches to reaching their goal. 

Scott and his team pushed for as many miles as possible on days when weather conditions were good. When the weather was bad, they sat in their tents and waited it out, worrying about how much time they were losing. Amundsen, on the other hand, pushed his team to make approximately 20 miles every day, regardless of weather, temperatures, visibility, terrain, or any other factor.

Guess which team got to the South Pole first?

That’s right. Amundsen’s group reached the goal 34 days before Scott’s group. Amundsen’s team turned around and arrived back at base camp safe and sound using the same tactic, while Scott and his team perished on the return journey. They were worn out from the excessive pushes for mileage on the days they traveled.

So What’s the Correlation?

Collins and Hansen set out to determine why some companies not only succeed but thrive in the face of chaos, while others fail. They researched companies that started from a vulnerable position and rose to success during unstable environments and lots of uncertainty. They then compared these companies to a control group that experienced the same adverse conditions and had worse results.

Here’s what they found. The companies that thrived did so at over ten times the industry rate compared to the control group despite the fact that they operated in the same economy, the same political environment, the same social environment, and the same disasters and upheaval as the non-performers.

How did these “10X” companies do it? Simple. They took the approach of the tortoise; the same one Roald Amundsen took with his team of explorers: slow and steady wins the goal. They used the 20-Mile March method.

The leaders of the 10X companies – Southwest Airlines, Stryker, and Progressive Insurance are three examples – set goals for yearly growth and stuck to them regardless of what was going on around them. While the goals required hard work, they were attainable. And these executives expected their organizations to hit the goals consistently. No excuses. No matter what.

It didn’t matter if the company was having a bad year and the industry as a whole was taking a hit. These companies were still expected to march 20 miles. It didn’t matter if the economy was booming and they could have doubled their profits that year. They were still expected to march 20 miles. No more, no less.

Here’s Why the 20-Mile March Approach Works

According to Collins and Hansen, the 20-Mile March gives companies an advantage over those racing for the finish line. Here’s why.

  1. The 20-Mile March builds confidence in team members. All the pep rallies and all-hands meetings in the world can’t make up for the boost of confidence gained from knowing that you’re responsible for your own success. If your team keeps that in mind, you’ll hit the goal, regardless of the odds.
  2. The 20-Mile March decreases the probability that unfavorable events will pull you down. With your nose to the grindstone, so to speak, you barely notice that the world is falling apart around you. You have a goal to reach. You will reach it. The world be damned.
  3. The 20-Mile March teaches self-control in the face of the uncontrollable. In mediocre years, 20 miles is attainable with work. In bad years, the team may have to work a little longer or a little harder. It’s during the easy years when things are good that trouble enters the picture. This is where self-control comes in. The 20-Mile March teaches that only 20 miles need to be covered – even when 40 miles are possible. Self-control is extremely difficult when the economy is booming and sales are going through the roof, especially if the competition is flying by. But pushing too far beyond the 20-mile limit may just push the company into a harmful situation that’s hard, if not impossible, to recover from.

When the End Is in Sight

During the end of Amundsen’s excursion – having no idea whether Scott’s team was ahead or behind him – he reached the point in the journey where the end was in sight. If they pushed, they could reach the South Pole within 24 hours and plant the flag for Norway. Some of his team members urged this action – they were excited to get to the goal. So what did Amundsen do? 

He marched them 17 miles. Then he stopped for the day. His team still reached the South Pole 34 days ahead of Scott’s team.

10X Success

Our three 10X example companies did well with their 20-Mile Marches, too:

  • Stryker hit its goal of 20% net income growth every year over 90% of the time between 1977 and 1998.
  • Southwest Airlines hit its goal of turning a profit every year for 30 consecutive years.
  • Progressive Insurance hit its goal of achieving a profitable combined ratio in 27 out of 30 years.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

What Is Your 20-Mile Marker?

How do you measure success in your business? Is it sales, revenue, YoY growth, or some other indicator? Are you more like Amundsen (the tortoise) or Scott (the hare)? Do you march 20 miles no matter what, or do you push for as many miles as possible, whenever possible? 

Take time now to answer these questions. It’ll make all the difference in your success.