Jim Collins is at it again. Collins, along with co-author Morten Hansen and a team of over 20 researchers, spent roughly nine years trying to determine why some companies thrive during chaotic, uncertain and unstable times while other companies do not. If you have read some of Collins' earlier books, the theme in "Great by Choice" certainly won't surprise you. In "Built to Last," published in 1994, Collins, co-author Jerry Porras and their research team wrote about what makes for a "visionary" company, comparing a group of objectively and subjectively defined visionary companies with comparison companies that weren't so visionary. The authors would argue that their company selections were much more objectively chosen, and I wouldn't argue much with that claim. In "Good to Great," published in 2001, Collins and his research team analyzed a number of good companies that took the next step to achieve greatness, while a comparison group of similar companies did not.
In both of these two earlier books, as well in the current one (I'll get to "Great by Choice" presently), the authors conspicuously note how much better the subject companies performed, stock market wise, compared to the comparison companies. However, it is important to realize that Collins and his co-authors are not suggesting that you run out and invest in their subject companies. If you did that for the "Built to Last" companies, your investments would have included Citigroup, Ford, Sony and other companies that subsequently didn't set the world on fire. Similarly, from the "Good to Great" focus companies, Circuit City eventually filled for bankruptcy and Fannie Mae proved to be a major disappointment, in more ways than one. The point is that the reader can learn from what these companies did during their periods of success, regardless of whether some of the companies lost their way later on. Interestingly, one company, Wells Fargo, actually went from the comparison list in "Built to Last" to the focus list in "Good to Great." Okay, forewarned is forearmed regarding investing in the subject companies.
A couple of years ago Collins wrote another book, "How the Mighty Fall," which is a study of leadership failure, not success. This short book is a very enjoyable and informative read, but somewhat different from the books I mentioned above. All of Collins' books are interesting, hard to put down, and written with a passion for understanding the mechanisms of corporate success. When it comes to writing, I think of him as the Michael Lewis of management gurus. Collins is also an exceptional speaker, if you ever have the chance to hear him.
In "Great by Choice," Collins and Hansen select just seven companies (out of an initial list of over 20,000) as examples of those that have thrived during chaotic times. The companies are Amgen, Biomet, Intel, Microsoft, Progressive Insurance, Southwest Airlines and Stryker. These companies are called "10X" companies, given that their stock prices outdistanced the comparison companies by roughly an order of magnitude during the study period. Consider, for example, Southwest Airlines. During the study period (1970s through 2002), Southwest faced fuel price jumps, deregulation, labor problems in the airline industry, competitors moving through the revolving door of bankruptcy, and an absence of flyers in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Still, the company consistently grew and prospered. During this time, comparison company Pacific Southwest Airlines had an entirely different experience.
So how does Collins explain the different fortunes between the subject companies and the comparison companies? Simplistically put, the great-by-choice companies were much better able to differentiate between situations and factors they could control and those they couldn't. Also, they exemplified "fanatic discipline, empirical creativity and productive paranoia." If you have read Collins' other works, these terms have a certain familiar ring to them.
This wouldn't be a Jim Collins book if it didn't coin some new expressions, like the "big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG)" from "Built to Last" and "Level 5 leadership" from "Good to Great." This time one of the main new expressions is the "20-mile march," which Collins uses to describe the very steady progress, through good times and bad, of the companies that thrive best during chaotic times, versus those companies that make exceptional progress during better times, but perform more poorly during tough times.
There is no such thing as a management guru with perfect insight or analysis, so I am not holding Collins to that standard. The real measure of a book such as this is more in its ability to raise important questions and through sound (even passionate) discussion help stimulate the reader to come to grips with important concepts. That's how people grow. If you have read and enjoyed Collins earlier books, chance are good you will like this one, too. If you are new to Collins, but have an interest in what makes companies tick, this book--along with his earlier works--are worth your consideration.