Good To Great | Notes & Review

Posted on August 9, 2008


After Wendy Kopp’s session, I decided to post my review of Collins’ two works that have been influential in my thinking, leadership, and management.

Collins, Jim. Good To Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap, and Others Don’t. Collins, 2001 (300 pages).

One of my favorite books. Perhaps what makes this book so great, is that it really is not about how to build great companies. It is a fascinating look into human greatness through the lens of business.  I was captivated with the “certain immutable laws of organized human performance” (p.15) and believe that they are applicable on virtually every stage where people perform.  And true to the principles of good vision casting, Collins et. al. are addressing a major problem. “That good is the enemy of great is not just a business problem.  It is a human problem.” (p.16)

Let’s see if I can sum.

DISCIPLINED PEOPLE: Level 5 Leadership. A study in duality: “blends extreme personal humility with intense professional will…” (p.21) “Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious-but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.” (p.21) Collins has also talked about the myth of charismatic leadership; that Level 5 leaders are often “ordinary people quietly producing extraordinary results.” (p.28) Also, inside development of leaders is key, rather than going outside the organization to bring in leadership. Level 5 leaders have a right relationship with the “window and the mirror.” (p.34) And the most glaring question, Can people become Level 5?  Yes.

DISCIPLINED PEOPLE: First Who…Then What. Right people on the bus, wrong people off the bus, right people in the right seats on the bus. Great vision without great people is irrelevant. There is no systematic pattern linking compensation to greatness (no “compensation gun.”) “The right people will do the right things and deliver the best results they’re capable of, regardless of the incentive system.” (p.50) And, the process of getting the right people must be rigorous, not necessarily ruthless. The moment you’re managing people rather than systems, you know you’ve got the wrong people.

DISCIPLINED THOUGHTS: Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith). “You absolutely cannot make a series of good decisions without first confronting the brutal facts.” (p.70) “If you successfully implement [the findings of this book], you will not need to spend time and energy ‘motivating’ people. If you have the right people on the bus, they will be self-motivated.” (p.74) “Leading from good to great does not mean coming up with the answers and then motivating everyone to follow your messianic vision. It means having the humility to grasp the fact that you do not yet understand enough to have the answers and then to ask the questions that will lead to the best possible insights.” (p.75) The Stockdale Paradox: “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” (p.85) “What separates people, is not the presence or absence of difficulty, but how they deal with the inevitable difficulties of life.” (p.86)

DISCIPLINED THOUGHT: The Hedgehog Concept (Simplicity within the Three Circles). From the famous “The Hedgehog and the Fox” by Isaiah Berlin. “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”[1] See what is essential. Ignore the rest. The three circles: 1) What are you deeply passionate about, 2) What you can be the best in the world at, 3) What drives your economic engine. To identify these, consult “The Council.” (p.115)

DISCIPLINED ACTION: A Culture of Discipline. (I love this next part) “the purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline — a problem that largely goes away if you have the right people in the first place.  Avoid bureaucracy and hierarchy and instead create a culture of discipline.” (p.121) “[Build] a consistent system with clear constraints, but also give people freedom and responsibility within the framework of that system. Hire self-disciplined people who don’t need to be managed, then manage the system, not the people.” (p.125) “Much of the answer to the question of ‘good to great’ lies in the discipline to do whatever it takes to become the best within carefully selected arenas and then to seek continual improvement from there. It’s really just that simple.  And it’s really just that difficult.” (p.128) This is really about tenacity, not brilliance. “Indeed, a great company is much more likely to die of indigestion from too much opportunity than starvation from too little. The challenge becomes not opportunity creation, but opportunity selection.” (p.136) How about start a “stop doing” list.

DISCIPLINED ACTION: Technology Accelerators. “Technology is an accelerator, not a creator of momentum.” (p.152) “Mediocrity results first and foremost from management failure, not technological failure.” (p.156) “No technology can instill the simple inner belief that leaving unrealized potential on the table-letting something remain good when it can become great-is a secular sin.” (p.161)

THE FLYWHEEL AND THE DOOM LOOP. “Here’s what’s important. We’ve allowed the way transitions look from the outside to drive our perception of what they must feel like to those going through them on the inside. From the outside, they look like dramatic, almost revolutionary breakthroughs. But from the inside, they feel completely different, more like an organic development process.” (p.168) There are no “miracle moments” in Good to Great. “The good-to-great companies understood a simple truth: Tremendous power exists in the fact of continued improvement and the delivery of results. Point to tangible accomplishments-however incremental at first-and show how these steps fit into the context of an overall concept that will work. When you do this in such a way that people see and feel the buildup of momentum, they will line up with enthusiasm.” (p.174-5) “Two big mediocrities joined together never make one great company.” (p.181)

FROM GOOD-TO-GREAT TO BUILT TO LAST. “Like most overnight successes, it was about twenty years in the making.”[2] (p.191) Core values are key. Develop BHAG’s (Big Hairy Audacious Goals). “I believe it is no harder to build something great than to build something good.” (p.205) Why greatness?: “the search for meaning, or more precisely, the search for meaningful work.” (p.208)

Final couple quotes worth inserting here.

“In a sense, much of this book is about creating a culture of discipline. It all starts with disciplined people.” (p.126)

“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice.” (p.11).

And finally, there are many theological reflections I have regarding the principles he outlines. Such as Level 5 Leadership being a combination of extreme will and extreme humility. Doesn’t that sound Biblical?! Doesn’t that sound like Jesus, Paul, Timothy, Esther, etc. How about never losing faith in the midst of the brutal facts? So, while I won’t write extensively about it here, I believe the contents of this book are not yet mined for all its “greatness.” I also want to write a “Guide for Teens” or something along those lines, recounting these principles for young people. Perhaps one day.


[1] Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox (Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks, 1993).
[2] Sam Walton with John Huey, Sam Walton: Made in America (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1992), 35.