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To Be A Clock Builder, And Not A Time Teller

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Visionary companies are the legendary organisations that stand out in the crowd and have a successful track record of making a significant impact on the world around them. They are the institutions which are widely admired for what they do and how they do it.

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A visionary company is not made only of their charismatic leaders or new-age products. The leaders die, the products become obsolete, but the company stays. It persists for long periods of time and survives multiple product life cycles and generations of leaders.

It is to be noted here that visionary companies do not necessarily mean successful companies. Successful companies make only money, the visionary ones make name and brand and are the best of the best.

It is very important to understand the success mantra of these companies. The exciting thing is to figure out how they became legendary, how they managed to survive different stages of corporate evolution, and how are they distinguished from the others. One of the most significant characteristics of the visionary companies is to be the clock builders, and not just the time tellers.

In an attempt to understand what makes the visionary companies different from their peers, and how they become the time tellers, Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras explained the concept in their book “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Cos.” The book explains,

“Imagine you met a remarkable person who could look at the sun or stars at any time of day or night and state the exact time and date: “It’s April 23, 1401, 2:36 A.M., and 12 seconds.” This person would be an amazing time teller, and we’d probably revere that person for the ability to tell time. But wouldn’t that person be even person for the ability to tell time. But wouldn’t that person be even more amazing if, instead of telling the time, he or she built a clock that could tell the time forever, even after he or she was dead and gone?

Having a great idea or being a charismatic visionary leader is “time telling”; building a company that can prosper far beyond the presence of any single leader and through multiple product life cycles is “clock building.” In the first pillar of our findings—and the subject of this chapter—we demonstrate how the builders of visionary companies tend to be clock builders, not time tellers. They concentrate primarily on building an organisation—building a ticking clock—rather than on hitting a market just right with a visionary product idea and riding the growth curve of an attractive product life cycle. And instead of concentrating on acquiring the individual personality traits of visionary leadership, they take an architectural approach and concentrate on building the organisational traits of visionary companies. The primary output of their efforts is not the tangible implementation of a great idea, the expression of a charismatic personality, the gratification of their ego, or the accumulation of personal wealth. Their greatest creation is the company itself and what it stands for.

The time tellers have a special ability, however, they are only able to use the ability themselves and it dies with them. On the other hand, the clock builders use their special ability to build an organisation so that the value stays even when they are gone. Similarly, the visionary companies do not merely build a success story that dies off soon; instead, they write history and build an organisation beyond the limits of economic cycles and product life cycles. The aura of the visionary companies shines bright even after the leaders are gone, the products have changed and the economies have modified.

In one of the most fascinating and important conclusions from our research, we found that creating and building a visionary company absolutely does not require either a great idea or a great and charismatic leader. In fact, we found evidence that great ideas brought forth by charismatic leaders might be negatively correlated with building a visionary company. These surprising findings forced us to look at corporate success from an entirely new angle and through a different lens than we had used before. They also have implications that are profoundly liberating for corporate managers and entrepreneurs alike.

The foundation of a visionary company is not its products or its leaders. It is not the great ideas that make a company exemplary, but how the ideas were processed and presented in a time-defying manner.

Thus, early in our project, we had to reject the great idea or brilliant strategy explanation of corporate success and consider a new view. We had to put on a different lens and look at the world backward. We had to shift from seeing the company as a vehicle for the products to seeing the products as a vehicle for the company. We had to embrace the crucial difference between time telling and clock building.

As a bottom line, the success mantra of visionary companies is to create value and well-being which  does not wither away with time, like the time tellers. The visionary companies need to build clocks out of their value, such that the positive attributes can be used by all others in the future, and they become the real-life examples of undying success!

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