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812 of 949 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Neither Good Nor Great, July 30, 2008
This review is from: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't (Hardcover)
This book by Jim Collins is one of the most successful books to be found in the "Business" section of your local megabookstore, and given how it purports to tell you how to take a merely good company and make it great, it's not difficult to see why that might be so. Collins and his crack team of researchers say they swam through stacks of business literature in search of info on how to pull this feat off, and came up with a list of great companies that illustrate some concepts central to the puzzle. They also present for each great company what they call a "comparison company," which is kind of that company with a goatee and a much less impressive earnings record. The balance of the book is spent expanding on pithy catch phrases that describe the great companies, like "First Who, Then What" or "Be a Hedgehog" or "Grasp the Flywheel, not the Doom Loop." No, no, I'm totally serious.

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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Showing 1-10 of 34 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 10, 2008, 7:46:52 PM PST
Cat-herder says:
what an awesome review. half retarted chips - priceless

Posted on Mar 8, 2009, 10:02:28 PM PDT
Thanks James. I wanted to write my review of this book, but you just saved me a lot of time. My thoughts exactly. Plus his definition of greatness, is also irksome, and what I think is one of the poetic ironies of the book, is one his favorite examples of a Great Company: Circuit City. If its bankruptcy and liquidation doesn't put a dent on the book's sales, it should make readers question its conclusions. If I were Collins, I'd be running to the editors to put out a "revised" version.

Posted on Mar 23, 2009, 3:03:56 PM PDT
North40 says:
fannie mae is another example of "success" that needs to be reexamined...

Posted on Jul 18, 2009, 7:18:52 PM PDT
D. Schwartz says:
good...I mean, great review. I haven't read the book but I agree with your thoughts on "research."

Posted on Jul 23, 2009, 4:12:46 AM PDT
I disagree with your analysis and I will try to respond point by point

-"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."

First of all Collins' method is a lot more scientific than most business books which merely state the author's own personal opinions. Second of all I am not sure what you mean by a "scientific method" for studying business success. By its nature it is going to be a bit fuzzy, you can't exactly run a double blind experiment. I would be curious to see what your exemplars of "scientific" research on what makes companies would be.

-"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."
The point was the importance of getting the right people on board BEFORE focusing on putting out a strategic vision (something which is not universally done). In any case even if Collins had merely been stating the obvious, it doesn't hurt to have common sense confirmed by empirical observation.

-"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."
That is a fair point, but this is not an academic book, it is meant for a popular audience, which just wants to get to the point in a simplified manner. They are not interested in getting into all the academic theories and references.

-"Ultimately it strikes me as vague generalities and little to no practical information about how to actually DO anything to make your company great. "
Disagree, it is just one datapoint to use, in combination with other books, personal experience, advice from other people etc. to try and form an idea of how to make a great organization.

The only issue with this book is that you have to trust Collins' did the analysis in a reasonable way since we don't have access to all the data.

But other than that, it seems to offer a useful contribution on how organizations go from good to great.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 7, 2009, 7:17:00 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 7, 2009, 7:17:41 PM PST
Seriously! Half-retarded Chimps cracked me. One thing I have recently learned is to always check the most critical review first, see if you can tolerate it or if it makes sense to you. Opposing viewpoints are really necessary to maintain balance - at least in few matters.

Posted on Feb 27, 2010, 9:05:42 AM PST
Sky King says:
So what is a better book?

Posted on Mar 30, 2010, 7:19:41 PM PDT
Ed Dixon says:
Tried that innovative Google search you mentioned and came up with a couple of interesting facts. There are James Madigans in executive positions at two of the companies Mr. Collins pans in his book. Could that be coincidence? Sure? Is it...or is this just sour grapes? I wonder. I also checked out your Amazon profile. You seem to enjoy trashing books. Frustrated author, perhaps?

Posted on Mar 30, 2010, 7:20:32 PM PDT
Ed Dixon says:
Tried that innovative Google search you mentioned and came up with a couple of interesting facts. There are James Madigans in executive positions at two of the companies Mr. Collins pans in his book. Could that be coincidence? Sure? Is it...or is this just sour grapes? I wonder. I also checked out your Amazon profile. You seem to enjoy trashing books. Frustrated author, perhaps?

Posted on May 8, 2010, 6:56:56 AM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Aug 21, 2012, 4:25:50 PM PDT]
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