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Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't Hardcover – Unabridged, October 16, 2001
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Five years ago, Jim Collins asked the question, "Can a good company become a great company and if so, how?" In Good to Great Collins, the author of Built to Last, concludes that it is possible, but finds there are no silver bullets. Collins and his team of researchers began their quest by sorting through a list of 1,435 companies, looking for those that made substantial improvements in their performance over time. They finally settled on 11--including Fannie Mae, Gillette, Walgreens, and Wells Fargo--and discovered common traits that challenged many of the conventional notions of corporate success. Making the transition from good to great doesn't require a high-profile CEO, the latest technology, innovative change management, or even a fine-tuned business strategy. At the heart of those rare and truly great companies was a corporate culture that rigorously found and promoted disciplined people to think and act in a disciplined manner. Peppered with dozens of stories and examples from the great and not so great, the book offers a well-reasoned road map to excellence that any organization would do well to consider. Like Built to Last, Good to Great is one of those books that managers and CEOs will be reading and rereading for years to come. --Harry C. Edwards
From Publishers Weekly
In what Collins terms a prequel to the bestseller Built to Last he wrote with Jerry Porras, this worthwhile effort explores the way good organizations can be turned into ones that produce great, sustained results. To find the keys to greatness, Collins's 21-person research team (at his management research firm) read and coded 6,000 articles, generated more than 2,000 pages of interview transcripts and created 384 megabytes of computer data in a five-year project. That Collins is able to distill the findings into a cogent, well-argued and instructive guide is a testament to his writing skills. After establishing a definition of a good-to-great transition that involves a 10-year fallow period followed by 15 years of increased profits, Collins's crew combed through every company that has made the Fortune 500 (approximately 1,400) and found 11 that met their criteria, including Walgreens, Kimberly Clark and Circuit City. At the heart of the findings about these companies' stellar successes is what Collins calls the Hedgehog Concept, a product or service that leads a company to outshine all worldwide competitors, that drives a company's economic engine and that a company is passionate about. While the companies that achieved greatness were all in different industries, each engaged in versions of Collins's strategies. While some of the overall findings are counterintuitive (e.g., the most effective leaders are humble and strong-willed rather than outgoing), many of Collins's perspectives on running a business are amazingly simple and commonsense. This is not to suggest, however, that executives at all levels wouldn't benefit from reading this book; after all, only 11 companies managed to figure out how to change their B grade to an A on their own.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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I've got several problems with this book, the biggest of which stem from fundamentally viewpoints on how to do research. Collin's brand of research is not my kind. It's not systematic, it's not replicable, it's not generalizable, it's not systematic, it's not free of bias, it's not model driven, and it's not collaborative. It's not, in short, scientific in any way. That's not to say that other methods of inquiry are without merit --the Harvard Business Review makes pretty darn good use of case studies, for example-- but way too often Collins's great truths seemed like square pegs crammed into round holes, because a round hole is what he wants. For example, there's no reported search for information that disconfirms his hypotheses. Are there other companies that don't make use of a Culture of Discipline (Chapter 6, natch) but yet are still great according to Collins's definition? Are there great companies that fail to do some of the things he says should make them great? The way that the book focuses strictly on pairs of great/comparison companies smacks of confirmatory information bias, which is a kink in the human mind that drives us to seek out and pay attention to information that confirms our pre-existing suppositions and ignore information that fails to support them.
Relatedly, a lot of the book's themes and platitudes strike me as owing their popularity to the same factors that make the horoscope or certain personality tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator so popular: they're so general and loosely defined that almost anyone can look at that and not only say that wow, that make sense, and I've always felt the same way! This guy and me? We're geniuses! The chapter about "getting the right people on the bus" that extols the virtue of hiring really super people is perhaps the most obvious example. Really, did anyone read this part and think "Oh, man. I've been hiring half retarded chimps. THAT'S my problem! I should hire GOOD people!" Probably not, and given that Collins doesn't go into any detail about HOW to do this or any of his other good to great pro tips, I'm not really sure where the value is supposed to be.
It also irked me that Good to Great seems to try and exist in a vacuum, failing to relate its findings to any other body of research except Collins's other book, Built to Last. The most egregious example of this is early on in Chapter 2 where Collins talks about his concept of "Level 5 Leadership," which characterizes those very special folks who perch atop a supposed leadership hierarchy. The author actually goes into some detail describing Level 5 leaders, but toward the end of the chapter he just shrugs his figurative shoulders and says "But we don't know how people get to be better leaders. Some people just are." Wait, what? People in fields like Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Organizational Development have been studying, scientifically, what great leaders do and how to do it for decades. We know TONS about how to become a better leader. There are entire industries built around it. You would think that somebody on the Good to Great research team may have done a cursory Google search on this.
So while Good to Great does have some interesting thoughts and a handful of amusing or even fascinating stories to tell about the companies it profiles (I liked, for example, learning about why Walgreens opens so many shops in the same area, even to the point of having stores across the street from each other in some cities), ultimately it strikes me as vague generalities and little to no practical information about how to actually DO anything to make your company great.
Those who flip heads "win," those who flip tails are eliminated.
Now let's assume that the coin-flipping adheres to the norm--that is, a flip yields heads half the time, and tails half the time. And let's do the flip-and-elimination exercise 10 times.
At the end, out of 1024 competitors, you should have one winner who's flipped 10 consecutive heads.
Is the winner great at flipping heads? No. Is the winner lucky? No. Is the winner inevitable? YES.
And that's the problem with Jim Collins' dunderheaded exercise--he's wowed by the winning coin flipper's success. He can't wait to interview the flipping champion, pore over the data to recreate the sheer drama/moments of truth surrounding each individual flip, find the subtle nuances beneath the flipper's consistent performance, and draw universally applicable lessons from the coin flipper's astounding success. I mean, how can anyone argue with TEN CONSECUTIVE flips of heads, right?
Um, actually everyone should argue with it, Jimmy.
Just like Tom Peters did fifteen years before with In Search of Excellence, Collins sanctifies his business winners, completely overlooking the fact that 1) plenty of business losers followed IDENTICAL strategies and still lost and 2) if you have any criteria for excellence that generates more than zero companies pulled from a universe of more than zero companies, then one or more companies MUST, by definition, make the cut, which leads us to 3) so what?--without a statistically rigorous analysis, there's a fairly serious possibility that a number of companies are making the cut randomly. Collins really stumbles on this last one--without statistical proof, not only can't he distinguish between Good and Great, he can't even make the call between Good and Kind of Random, Dude.
Like Collins' masquerade, Peters' book was a big hit, but followers of Peters soon ran into the Law of George Bernard Shaw--Time Wounds All Heels; most of the companies Peters championed in his book quickly floundered. Some of Collins' sainted companies are already floundering as well...
Books like Good to Great prey on the fact that you napped through statistics--if you'd been caffeined up during those dull lectures, you'd have remembered the fallacy of composition (the coin flipper's exercise), the distinction between random outcomes and relevant ones, and the enormous difference between what's causal and what's coincidental.
Look, there's nothing new in business: there are only a few basic strategies, and only a few macro and microeconomic truths. Ever notice how fads like supply side economics, the Japanization of America, the endless bull market, the end of history, The New Economy and the Macarena all seemed to collapse under the weight of basic market concepts you already knew?
So SNAP OUT OF IT, gulp down that double espresso, go back to your old and boring (but still accurate and useful) Michael Porter, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Benjamin Graham, and Burton Malkiel, and stop chasing misallocated or downright blockheaded metaphors from Who Moved My Cheese, The Art of War and poor, misunderstood Charles Darwin, and for God's sake, please take a pass on this Three Card Monte of a book.