Great by Choice: A book review by Bob Morris

Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck ā€“ Why Some Companies Thrive Despite Them All
Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen
Harper Business/A HarperCollins Imprint (2011)

Additional and even more valuable revelations about “the principles that distinguish great organizations from good ones”

For as long as I can remember, Jim Collins has been a research-driven business thinker. In each of his prior books, he and his associates (usually Morten Hansen among them) share what was revealed during many years of research to learn the answer to an especially important question. For Built to Last, it was “Why are some companies able to achieve and sustain success through multiple generations of leaders, across decades and even centuries?”; in Good to Great, “Why do some companies make the leap from good to great… and others don’t?”; then in How the Might Fall, “How and why do some once great companies fall and other companies never give in to the same challenges, problems, and setbacks?”; and now in Great by Choice, “Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not?”

Collins, Hansen, and their colleagues conducted a nine-year study (2002-2011) and share what they learned. Here are the findings that caught my eye:

1. For reasons best revealed within the book’s narrative, in context, some companies and leaders thrive in chaos. Those on whom the book focuses have out-performed their industry’s index by at least 10 times and (key point) under the same extreme conditions with which others in the same industry must also contend.

2. Characterized as “10X” companies, those selected were paired in a “near-perfect match” — for purposes of both comparison and contrast – with companies during “eras of dynastic performance that ended in 2002, not the companies as they are today. It’s entirely possible that by the time you read these words, one or two of the companies on the list [i.e. Amgen, Biomet, Intel, Microsoft, Progressive Insurance, Southwest Airlines, and Stryker] has stumbled, falling from greatness.”

3. The research invalidates well-entrenched myths (see Pages 9-10) with regard to the 10X companies and their leaders. For example, “the evidence does not support the premise that 10X companies will necessarily be more innovative than their less successful comparisons [during the same timeframe]; and in some cases, the 10X cases were [begin italics] less [end italics] innovative.”

4. Leaders of 10X companies display three core behaviors that, in combination, distinguish them from the leaders of less successful comparison companies. They also call to mind the behaviors of Level 5 leadership, examined in detail in Good to Great. Specifically, 10Xers exemplify fanatic discipline (“utterly relentless, monomaniacal, unbending in their focus on their quests”), empirical creativity (reliance on “direct observation, practical experimentation, and direct engagement with tangible evidence”), and productive paranoia (channeling their fear and worry into action, preparing, developing contingency plans, building buffers, and maintaining large margins of safety”).

5. In the Epilogue, Collins and his associates acknowledge their sense that “a dangerous disease” is infecting today’s culture, one that incorrectly suggests that greatness “owes more to circumstance, even luck, than to action and discipline.” Yes, they agree, good or bad luck plays a role for everyone, including 10Xers and Level Fivers. However, they offer an eloquent reassurance that many of us need to hear: “The greatest leaders we’ve studied throughout all our research cared as much about values as victory, as much about purpose as profit. As much about being useful as being successful. Their drive and stamina are ultimately internal, rising from where deep inside.”

Organizations do not make choices, their leaders do, and the fate of each of those organizations depends on the quality of the choices its leaders make, especially amidst uncertainty, chaos, and luck…three realities that even the best leaders can only manage rather than control. That is the challenge but also the opportunity to which the book’s title refers. The single most important difference between the 10X companies that Collins and Hansen discuss and those with which they are compared/contrasted is that those who lead them make better choices as they build and then sustain a culture within which everyone else does.

 


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