A review of the new Jim Collins book "Great By Choice"

I admit it. I’m a total Jim Collins fanboy.

Ever since my friend Paul Salazar first introduced me to the book Built to Last back in 2002, I’ve been a willing member of the cult of Jim Collins. During my time at Red Hat, we took some of the ideas from Built to Last as inspiration for the process we used to uncover the Red Hat values. Then we later employed many of the principles from Collins’ next book Good to Great as we further developed the Red Hat positioning, brand, and culture.

Check out this picture of my copies of Built to Last and Good to Great, with little Red Hat Shadowman stickies marking the key sections I refer to the most. (I’m such a nerd.)

While many of the Big Concepts (TM) expressed in these books may initially seem a bit cheesy and Overly Branded (TM), I’ve come to love and occasionally use some of the terms like BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals), the Tyranny of the OR, Level 5 Leadership, and my longtime favorite The Hedgehog Concept. Why?

Because they are just so damn useful. They make the incredibly complex mechanics behind successful and not-so-successful organizations and leaders simple and easy for anyone to understand. They are accessible ideas and you don’t have to be a former management consultant with an MBA from Harvard in order to understand how to apply these principles to your own organization.

I’d go so far as to say that over the past fifteen years, no one has done more than Jim Collins to democratize the process of creating a great organization.

So when I found out that Jim Collins had a new book coming out, his first since the rather dark and depressing (but no less useful) How the Mighty Fall in 2009, and that he’d been working on this new book with his co-author Morten Hansen for the last nine years, I was ready for my next fix.

I finished the new book, entitled Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck–Why Some Thrive Despite Them All a few nights ago, and here are my thoughts.

This book comes from the same general neighborhood Collins explores in his previous books (I’d describe this neighborhood as “what makes some companies awesome and others… not so much”), but instead of simply rehashing the same principles, this book explores a particularly timely subject. From Chapter 1, here’s how Collins and Hansen set up the premise:

“Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not? When buffeted by tumultuous events, when hit by big, fast-moving forces that we can neither predict nor control, what distinguishes those who perform exceptionally well from those who underperform or worse?”
In other words, what common characteristics are found in companies that thrive when the going gets wacky? (Times like, for instance… right now.)

In this book Collins and Hansen clearly did an immense amount of research to answer this question. In fact, as with Built to Last and Good to Great, the appendixes at the end “showing the math” for how they reached their conclusions take a third or more of the book.

Their research led to a set of companies that they refer to as the “10x” cases because, during the study period, these companies outperformed the rest of their industry by 10 times or more. After looking at over 20,000 companies, the final organizations that made the cut were Amgen, Biomet, Intel, Microsoft, Progressive Insurance, Southwest Airlines, and Stryker.

Now you may look at this list, as I did, and say to yourself, “Okay, I get Southwest Airlines and Progressive Insurance… but Microsoft????”

Well, as it turns out, the period they were studying wasn’t up until the present day. Because this research began nine years ago, they were studying the companies from 1965 (or their founding date if it was later) until 2002. So in that context, the choice of Microsoft makes a lot more sense. In 2002, Microsoft was still firing on all cylinders (believe me, I remember).

I won’t spoil the whole book for you, but Great by Choice has an entirely new set of Big Concepts (TM) that will help you understand the characteristics that set these companies apart from their peers. This time around, we are introduced to:

The 20 Mile March: Consistent execution without overreaching in good times or underachieving in bad times.
Firing Bullets, Then Cannonballs: Testing concepts in small ways and then making adjustments rather than placing big, unproven bets (basically akin to the open source principles of release early, release often and failing fast). But then placing big bets when you have figured out exactly where to aim.
Leading above the Death Line: Learning how to effectively manage risk so that the risks your organization take never put it in mortal danger.
Return on Luck: My favorite quote from the book perfectly articulates the concept: “The critical question is not whether you’ll have luck, but what you do with the luck that you get.”

Many of these concepts come with an awesome allegorical story to illustrate them. That’s the great thing about a Jim Collins book: you can’t always tell whether you are reading a business book or an adventure book. In this case Collins (who is also an avid rock climber himself) shares tales from an ill-fated Everest expedition, the race for the South Pole, and a near death climbing experience in Alaska interspersed with specific stories from the businesses he is profiling.

Overall assessment: The book is a fitting companion to Built to Last, Good to Great, and How the Mighty Fall. Simple, accessible, easy to digest, and with some very actionable key concepts that you can immediately put to use. And, unless you read all of the research data at the end, you’ll find it to be a quick read that you can likely finish on a plane trip or in an afternoon.

So go on, pick up a copy and let me know if you agree.

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