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Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t by Jim Collins




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Stop Wasting Time

My copy of Jim Collins’ previous book, Built to Last, is full of underlined passages and notes in the margins. I read it with great enthusiasm in 1994 and tried to incorporate its messages at the company where I worked. In what amounts to a prequel to that book, Good to Great presents the results of five years of research that examines why some companies go from doing okay to then doing remarkably well. Along with a team of researchers, Collins dug into US companies that followed this pattern: fifteen-years of cumulative stock returns at or below the general market, followed by a transition point, and then returns at least three times the market over the next fifteen years. Using these criteria, only eleven companies made the cut. Collins and the team interviewed those companies, and also matched them with comparison companies to make the point: what distinguished the great company from a competitor.

The results in this book may surprise you. Leadership took a form that we don’t read about very often. There’s more simplicity than complexity. Gradual change wins out over radical transformation. Insights are on many pages. Here’s a sample:

“Let me share a story from the research. At a pivotal point in the study, members of the research team nearly revolted. Throwing their interview notes on the table, they asked, ‘Do we have to keep asking that stupid question?’
 ‘What stupid question?’ I asked.
 ‘The one about commitment, alignment, and how they managed change.’
 ‘That’s not a stupid question,’ I replied. ‘It’s one of the most important.’
 ‘Well,’ said one team member, ‘a lot of the executives who made the transition – well, they think it’s a stupid question. Some don’t even understand the question!’
 ‘Yes, we need to keep asking it,’ I said. ‘We need to be consistent across all the interviews. And, besides, it’s even more interesting that they don’t understand the question. So, keep probing. We’ve got to understand how they overcame resistance to change and got people lined up.’
I fully expected to find that getting everyone lined up – ‘creating alignment,’ to use the jargon – would be one of the top challenges faced by executives working to turn good into great. After all, nearly every executive who’d visited the laboratory had asked this question in one form or another. ‘How do we get the boat turned?’ ‘How do we get people committed to the new vision?’ ‘How do we motivate people to line up?’ ‘How do we get people to embrace change.’
To my great surprise, we did not find the question of alignment to be a key challenge faced by the good-to-great leaders.
Clearly, the good-to-great companies did get incredible commitment and alignment – they artfully managed change – but they never really spent much time thinking about it. It was utterly transparent to them. We learned that under the right conditions, the problems of commitment, alignment, motivation, and change just melt away. They largely take care of themselves.”

To find out the right conditions, read the book. A major insight for many readers will be that we can stop doing some things that aren’t necessary. Here’s how Collins puts it:

“Indeed, the point of this entire book is not that we should ‘add’ these findings to what we are already doing and make ourselves even more overworked. No, the point is to realize that much of what we’re doing is at best a waste of energy. If we organized the majority of our work time around applying these principles, and pretty much ignored or stopped doing everything else, our lives would be simpler and our results vastly improved.”

So, stop wasting time. Read this book and learn about the three circles and the flywheel. Highly recommended.

Steve Hopkins, February 1, 2002


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