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Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck--Why Some Thrive Despite Them All Hardcover – October 11, 2011
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Jim Collins on the Writing Process
When I first embarked on a career that required writing, I devoured dozens of books about the process of writing. I soon realized that each writer has weird tricks and idiosyncratic methods. Some wrote late at night, in the tranquil bubble of solitude created by a sleeping world, while others preferred first morning light. Some cranked out three pages a day, workmanlike, whereas others worked in extended bursts followed by catatonic exhaustion. Some preferred the monastic discipline of facing cinder-block walls, while others preferred soaring views.
I quickly learned that I had to discover my own methods. Most useful, I realized that I have different brains at different times of day. In the morning, I have a creative brain; in the evening, I have a critical brain. If I try to edit in the morning, I’m too creative, and if I try to create in the evening, I’m too critical. So, I go at writing like a two piston machine: create in the morning, edit in the evening, create in the morning, edit in the evening…
Yet all writers seem to agree on one point: writing well is desperately difficult, and it never gets easier. It’s like running: if you push your limits, you can become a faster runner, but you will always suffer. In nonfiction, writing is thinking; if I can’t make the words work, that means I don’t know yet what I think. Sometimes after toiling in a quagmire for dozens (or hundreds) of hours I throw the whole effort into the wastebasket and start with a blank page. When I sheepishly shared this wastebasket strategy with the great management writer Peter Drucker, he made me feel much better when he exclaimed, “Ah, that is immense progress!”
The final months of completing Great by Choice required seven days a week effort, with numerous all-nighters. I had naively hoped after writing Good to Great that perhaps I had learned enough about writing that this work might not require descending deep into the dark cave of despair. Alas, the cave of darkness is the only path to producing the best work; there is no easy path, no shorter path, no path of less suffering. Winston Churchill once said that writing a book goes through five phases. In phase one, it is a novelty or a toy; by phase five, it is a tyrant ruling your life, and just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public. And so, exiting the caving blinking in the sunlight, we’ve killed the monster and hereby fling. We love this book, and have great passion about sharing it with the world—making all the suffering worthwhile.
A Q&A with Morten T. Hansen
Q: How did you and Jim develop ideas together during the research?
Hansen: During our hundreds of research meetings—what we called “chimposiums” (as when two curious chimps get together), Jim and I probed the data, exchanged views, and debated vigorously. We didn't always agree, in which case we did some more analysis to get to the main findings we report in Great by Choice.
Q: Why did Great by Choice take nine years of effort?
Hansen: When Jim and I started out some nine years ago, we did not anticipate that it would take us this long, nor did we know what the results would be. We followed a simple principle—carry out the absolutely best research we could possibly do, no matter how long.
Q: Did you find what you expected, or surprises?
Hansen: The way we did the research was to explore why some companies attained great performance over the long-run while others did not. We did not start with any preconceived ideas and hypotheses about what made the difference. We let the data speak. What we found, and what we report in the book, surprised us a great deal. A few times we scratched our heads because we were so surprised, but that's what the data revealed.
Q: Did you have fun?
Hansen: Analyzing the data, debating, and arriving at some really interesting insights was a great deal of fun. It created joy in my life. It may not be everyone's idea of having a good time, but Jim and I always looked forward to our chimposiums. I hope you will enjoy Great by Choice as much as Jim and I enjoyed the research process!
“Collins and Hansen draw some interesting and counterintuitive conclusions from their research….far from a dry work of social science. Mr. Collins has a way with words, not least with metaphor.” (Wall Street Journal)
Entrepreneurs and business leaders may find the concepts in this book useful for making choices to increase their odds of building a great company. (Booklist)
Top Customer Reviews
I always wish Amazon would show an easy-to-find Table of Contents for books, so I've created one for you here, complete with a summary of each chapter/section.
1 - THRIVING IN UNCERTAINTY
Collins and Hansen explain what the method for their book (what I described above), including the definition of a 10Xer, which is a company that beat their industry by 10 fold. Just 7 companies were selected as a 10X case out of 20,400 companies. The seven are Amgen, Biomet, Intel, Microsoft, Progressive Insurance, Southwest Airlines, and Stryker. They don't include Apple because their research lens of Apple vs. Microsoft focused primarily on the 1980s and 1990s (remember they stopped collecting data in 2002), which makes no sense to me. The present environment (the one in which Apple has exploded) is a far more difficult climate than the 80s-90s.
2 - 10Xers
Example of a 10xer is Southwest airlines, whose growth since 1972 is greater than that of Walmart, despite this period being a particularly harsh one for the airline industry. Anecdotes describe historic examples of 10xers and explains they aren't more creative, more visionary, more charismatic, or more ambitious, more blessed by luck, more risk seeking, more heroic, or more bold. The glaring fact that Apple is missing goes against this model, as Jobs and company were many of these things.
3 - 20 MILE MARCH
Here they introduce discipline as the key that sets 10Xers apart (hence the 20 mile march). 10Xers are focused on data with GREAT discipline and stick to their plan, like a 20 Mile March.
4 - FIRE BULLETS, THEN CANNONBALLS
10Xers were not more innovative than the control companies; indeed, they were considered less innovative in some comparisons. 10Xers scale innovation (firing bullets) and then the fire cannonballs once they know what's on target.
5 - LEADING ABOVE THE DEATH LINE
Explains "productive paranoia," the idea that you need to build cash reserves and buffers, bound your risk, and show flexibility in looking at macro and micro factors at play in your business and industry.
6 - SMaC
SMaC stands for Specific, Methodological, and Consistent. The more uncertain your environment, the more SMaC you need to be. A SMaC recipe is a set of durable operating principles and practices that create a replicable and consistent success formula.
7 - ROL (RETURN ON LUCK)
10Xers weren't more lucky or unlucky than comparisons. They had better ROL because they took full advantage of good luck and minimized the effects of bad luck. If you think about it, that's the real key to luck. Knowing when you got lucky and how to take advantage of it, rather than blindly thinking you walk on water (like so many businesses do).
Like Jim's other books, the how to is what's missing. An outstanding book for that (increasing your leadership skill set) is Leadership 2.0
This book is classic Collins. Well researched, clearly describes and expertly packaged for executives to incorporate these concepts into their lexicon and thoughts. This book is recommended as the capstone of the study of the fundamentals of great companies.
Great by Choice is a lot like How the Mighty Fall as it's a short, concise and focused book. About half of it is content and half is appendices, FAQs and methodology - just like HtMF. Put the two together and you get a comprehensive look at modern corporate success.
This is a book for understanding and admiring the factors Collin's points out as driving superior performance.
The book describes these factors, but description is not prescription.
This book is not a 'how to' book, nor one that provides much action oriented help. It relies on the reader understanding Collins points and then tailoring them to their situation. That places the burden of value on the reader, which is where it should be as greatness is less a recipe than a recommitment to hard work.
Great by Choice contains a set of core concepts that define the major chapters in the book. Here is a short description of each to provide an idea of what is in Great by Choice and how Collins describes the characteristics of companies that have exceptional performance, what Collins calls 10x.
20 Mile March describes the fanatic discipline that leads you to manage for the long term rather than chasing short-term results or the fade. Essentially this is the business version of the classical Greek axiom of balance and discipline.
Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs by being empirically creative by experimenting intelligently everywhere and exploit where you know you are having success. This is more than the idea of `failing fast'. It is a definition of innovation based on the combination of creativity, discipline and data.
Leading above the death line describes the productive paranoia that was captured by Andy Grove's management mantra. This is a business version of the Boy Scout's principle of `Be Prepared.' This chapter concentrates on the success and practices of preparation and having reserves that enable you to achieve more.
SMaC describes the company's principles that are Specific, Methodolical and Consistent. This chapter in essence describes the power of common vision, direction and culture. Collins points out that SMaC is one of the more powerful ways to exert control in a dynamic world.
Return on Luck discusses how leaders and laggards face unpredictable positive and negative events. This is perhaps one of the best chapters as it describes how Collins and his team investigated the phenomenon of luck. As expected the conclusion is that luck does not play a guiding factor, rather its how you take advantage of good luck and are prepared (death line) for bad luck.
These concepts are all interrelated and go beyond the book' s triangle graphic. You cannot do a 20 mile march well without SMAC and both are worth lest without the preparation associated with leading above the death line.
Overall, I recommend Great by Choice for both fan's of Collins' work and for people who are new to this discussion. Yes this book is a continuation the prior books, but it does a great job of providing new insight without overly repeating prior points.
Great By Choice to be a good place for people to start. You do not need to read Collin's other books, but logically this book is the second half of How the Mighty Fall. I would suggest that if you are going to read both that you read HtMF first as you need to fix that first before the ideas in this book will have an effect.
The book contains strong ideas that are simple to communicate and easy to mentally think about how they fit with your organization. Its easy to see how they would may your company a 10X performer.
The case descriptions are informative, insightful and illustrative. The cases are well worn: Southwest Airlines, Microsoft, Apple, Progressive Insurance and Intel, but well applied.
The use of mountaineering and explorers as non-business based examples will give you the stories to tell around the water cooler.
The book provides powerful description of concepts that we already know. Rewriting Collins' points boil down to the following: have along term vision (20 miles), experiment to innovate (bullets and canon), `Be Prepared' (death line), follow your core (SMaC) and take advantage when possible (Return on Luck)
The companies featured are studied from 1977 to 2002 which was a period of significant change: the internet, oil crisis, stagflation, etc. However, historically economists have dubbed this period part of what they call the great moderation. So while these principles are timeless, they do not account for what has happened and happening now.
There is no treatment of technology in the book. Given that much of the global, collaborative and social world is driven by technology, this is a big omission.