So You Want to be World-Class?

Lots of organisations claim to excel.  They are:

I wouldn’t mind betting that yours claims it is the best in the world at something.

Are they really all that good or is it simply corporate conceit?

What does it take to become world-class?

In his book “Outliers: The Story of Success” Malcolm Gladwell claims that people who are outstanding in their field have one thing in common.  They have all put in over 10,000 hours of practice.

Now 10,000 hours is a lot of time.  If you practiced playing the piano for 4 hours every evening, 5 nights a week, 50 weeks a year (you can have a couple of weeks off at Christmas) it would take you 10 years to rack up 10,000 hours.

And your spouse would probably leave you.

Vanishingly few people are that committed to their cause.  Most people will give up long before then and go and watch telly instead.  Only a few, a very few, will focus and practice so relentlessly.  They will keep going long after everybody else has stopped and so they are the ones who will pull it off.  They will become world-class.

How does an organisation become world-class?

Most managers think that to become world class they have to do lots of “stuff”.  They have strings of objectives, aims and goals.  So many that they read like shopping lists:

  1. Launch new innovative product by Q3
  2. Increase customer satisfaction by 3% points
  3. Reduce gross costs by £30 per unit
  4. Roll out a process improvement methodology
  5. Become a service centre of excellence
  6. Reduce headcount by 15%
  7. Reduce customer waiting times by 2 hours
  8. Increase service quality to category A
  9. Drive top line to £1,000,000 per month
  10. Improve the employee engagement survey score to become top quartile

In their efforts to achieve, their objectives go on and on and on.  Most managers (and businesses) are everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.

Everywhere and nowhere doesn’t make you world class

Anybody can write a long list of objectives, but if you apply the 10,000 hour logic to business, then you will only become world class if you focus on one objective relentlessly and keep on focusing on it long after your competitors have given up.

That is hard enough to do with one objective, let alone ten.

So if you really want to lead a world class organisation, pick one objective and stick with it.

The only hard bit is deciding what you are not going to do.

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World Class

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Image by FailedImitator


  1. Hi James,
    Many people talk about doing things relentlessly to achieve performance improvement. Don’t you think that a key element of relentless focus is patience, particularly and paradoxically in a world where things around us seem to happen so fast but change can come so slowly?


  2. James,

    This is an excellent post… you make a great point. Focus, focus, focus… on the one thing that is going to make you the best in the world. Boiling the ocean is not the answer. You cannot be the best at everything you do.


  3. As you point out, there’s clearly a difference between stated intentions (“We want to be world class”) and actions (“We work everyday at becoming world class”).

    The list of “stuff” you provided is a great example because it’s really a mix of objectives and tasks. I totally agree that it requires a clear focus on one overriding objective to become world class at anything.

  4. Hello James

    Vanity, vanity, vanity – all is vanity when it comes to the human condition. If I understand the psychologists and neuroscientists then those of us who are realistic end up being depressed. And perhaps even going insane. It is those of us who see the world through rose-tinted glasses that do well. Put differently, the majority of drivers think they are above average drivers. The vast majority of managers think they are above average managers. The vast majority of employees think they are better than average. And so it goes on…Just about everybody sane is convinced that s/he is above average.

    As for your other point it is also a great one. Choice and focus are hard at the best of times. They are particular hard in our times when we are addicted to choice. Besides a laundry list is easy where as strategy requires thought and existential courage. Including the courage to be wrong. To later find that one has focussed on the wrong stuff.


    • James Lawther says:

      That is a very interesting perspective Maz and blindingly obvious now you have pointed it out.

      Thank you


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