I recently finished reading Jim Collins latest book, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All

I like Jim Collins and think that he does excellent work, however I tend to be somewhat of a skeptic when it comes to his process.  I’ve read most of his books and they all share a similar formula:

  • Start with a research question that pertains to the theme: Why does one group of companies succeed while others fail?
  • Pick a group of companies to study that have succeeded
  • Pick a similar group of companies who have not succeeded
  • Study the differences between the two groups of companies and explain the results using catchy descriptors
  • Take a moment to defend the validity of the prior book (and quickly explain why the “successful” companies from the last book are now out of business)
  • Explain how the research lessons apply to non-business audiences (e.g. churches, schools, sports teams, etc.) in an effort to expand the target market for the book

What sets Collins apart from other business authors is his devotion to proper academic research methodologies.  His work is deeply data driven and he is constantly referencing the rigor of his research process.  He even includes sections for “limitations of research” and “methodology” alluding to the structure of an academic paper.

For those of you who think that most business books are pointless exercises in confirmation bias written by poorly informed charlatans looking to make a buck – Jim Collins is a good author for you.

In Great by Choice, there were a few different sections, but the part I liked best was the section where Collins analyzed the characterizes of people he called “10Xers” or leaders that produced results that were 10 times better than the “comparison” leaders (throughout the book, “comparison” is used as a euphemism for “unsuccessful”).

Collins found that there were three primary characteristics that separated 10X leaders from comparison leaders – which he represents with the following catchy descriptors:

  • Fanatic Discipline (in short – stay even keel, make a plan and stick to it; never over-extend)
  • Productive Paranoia (Never rest on your laurels and always work like there is someone out to take what’s yours)
  • Empirical Creativity (When faced with decisions, look to empirical data and never just follow convention)

The explanation here I found deeply compelling, however after reading Collins work, I always end up with two pretty strong reactions:

My first reaction is tends to be: All of this is bullshit.

What I mean to say is that, in reality, business is such a dynamic topic to study and it’s really hard to separate correlation from causation in these types of cases.  How do we really know that Fanatic Discipline is what caused the success for the 10X leaders?  Could it have been something else that really caused the success and it just happens the 10X leaders analyzed were also very disciplined?  Surely there are disciplined leaders who have not been successful.  Perhaps success is really created by the intersection of a hundred variables that aren’t easily explained or quantified?

The second reaction I always have is that this material can be a very useful tool for leading teams.

Even if Collins does over-estimate the causality of his research (and I’m not saying he does), the findings are still useful learnings that I have no doubt contribute in some way to success.

If nothing else, the book is filled with an arsenal of compelling anecdotes that can help guide a team the right direction toward healthy and sustainable practices (my favorite anecdotes are the ones are about the expedition to the South Pole and Andy Grove designing his own cancer treatment).

All in all, the book is a good read and in the right context can be a helpful source material to help teams achieve success.

Great by Choice