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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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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
Top Customer Reviews
Jim Collins and his team have done an enormous amount of interesting work to determine whether a good company can be come a great company, and how. The answer to the former question is "yes," assuming that the 11 of 1435 Fortune 500 companies did not make it there by accident. The answer to the latter is less clear. The study group identified a number of characteristics that their 11 companies had in common, which were much less frequently present in comparison companies. However, the study inexplicably fails to look at these same characteristics to see how often they succeed in the general population of companies. If these characteristics work 100 percent of the time, you really have something. If they work 5 percent of the time, then not too much is proven.
How were the 11 study companies selected? The criteria take pages to explain in an appendix. Let me simplify by saying that their stock price growth had to be in a range from somewhat lower than to not much higher than the market averages for 15 years. Then, in the next 15 years the stocks had to soar versus the market averages and comparison companies while remaining independent. That's hard to do. The selected companies are Abbott Laboratories, Circuit City, Fannie Mae, Gillette, Kimberly-Clark, Kroger, Nucor, Philip Morris, Pitney Bowes, Walgreen, and Wells Fargo.
As to the "how," attention was focused on what happened before and during the transition from average performance to high performance. Interviews, quantitative analyses, and business press reports were studied. Clearly, there's a tendency to see things a little bit with 20-20 hindsight in such a situation. Since this study started in 1996, it was dealing with facts that were already quite old while they were being examined. Bias is likely.
The key conclusions as to "how" included the following:
(1) a series of CEOs (promoted from within) who combined "personal humility and professional will" focused on making a great company;
(2) an initial focus on eliminating weak people, adding top performing ones, and establishing a culture of top talent putting out extraordinary effort;
(3) then shifting attention to staring at and thinking unceasingly about the hardest facts about the company's situation;
(4) using facts to develop a simple concept that is iteratively reconsidered to focus action on improving performance;
(5) establishing and maintaining a corporate culture of discipline built around commitments, with freedom about how to meet those promises;
(6) using technology to accelerate progress when it fits the company's concept of what it wants to become; and
(7) the company builds momentum from consistent efforts behind its concept that are reinforced by success.
Then, a connection is made to how these 7 conditions can provide the foundation for establishing a Built to Last type of company that can outperform the competition over many decades.
One potential criticism of the study is that its conclusions could be dated. Former Stanford professor Collins argues that he has uncovered basic facts about human organizations that will be unchanging.
I compared the conclusions in this book with my own studies of top performing CEOs and companies in the 1988-2001 time period. I noticed two major differences that suggest a shift in "best practice" standards. First, those who outperform now have developed processes that create major improvements in their operating business models every 2-5 years. Second, senior management development is focused around improving a culture for defining and implementing such improvements. I suspect that item (4) above was an embryonic predecessor to these new dimensions, which occur much more frequently now than in this study.
Next, I compared the list of 7 items to what I had observed in companies. The biggest point that hit me is how few CEOs have been interested in creating long-term outperformance that lasts past their own tenure in an industry. You also have to be a CEO for a long time with that focus before you have a chance to make a lasting impact. Founders have a special advantage here. Perpetuating outperformance may help fill a psychological need for immortality that fits with founders especially well.
Finally, I thought about what I knew about the companies studied from personal contacts during the study years. My sense is that their stories are far more complex than is captured here. So, I think the data have probably been "scrunched" to fit together in some cases. In particular, I wonder whether these companies will greatly outperform in the next 15 years. In many cases, they expanded to meet an unfilled need that is now largely fulfilled. Can they develop a new concept for (4) that will carry them forward as successfully in the future? My guess is that most will not. If that turns out to be the case, we must conclude that the items on this list may be necessary . . . but may not be sufficient to go permanently from good to great. Time will tell.
Before closing, let me observe that if the research team had also looked at the rate by which their principles succeeded among companies that employed them, this would have been one of the very finest research studies on best practices that I have seen. A book like this will provoke much discussion and thought for years to come. Perhaps that information can be included in a future edition or printing. Then, we will have something magnificent to consider!
Do you want to be the best permanently? Why? Or, why not? Mr. Collins points out that it probably takes no more effort, but a lot more discipline and focus.
Collins advocates the Hedgehog Concept - a combination of discovering what you can be best in the world at (Optimal Thinking), what you are passionate about, and what drives your economic engine. Collins states that sustained disciplined action is primarily achieved by "fanatical adherence to the Hedgehog Concept and the willingness to shun opportunities that fall outside the three circles." So my question is: How do you identify the best? I recommend Optimal Thinking: How To Be Your Best Self by Dr. Rosalene Glickman as an adjunct to this powerful book to provide the mental resource to identify the best, optimize emotional and financial intelligence and create a corporate culture of optimization. From Good to Greatest to Best!"
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.
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Pros: The concepts are intuitive and clear.
Recommended to anyone who wants to run a Great Company!