Friday, November 11, 2011

Great By Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, And Luck--Why Some Thrive Despite Them All By Jim Collins, Morten T. Hansen

Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck--Why Some Thrive Despite Them All

Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck--Why Some Thrive Despite Them All
By Jim Collins, Morten T. Hansen

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Product Description

The new question
Ten years after the worldwide bestseller Good to Great, Jim Collins returns with another groundbreaking work, this time to ask: Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not? Based on nine years of research, buttressed by rigorous analysis and infused with engaging stories, Collins and his colleague, Morten Hansen, enumerate the principles for building a truly great enterprise in unpredictable, tumultuous, and fast-moving times.

The new study
Great by Choice distinguishes itself from Collins's prior work by its focus not just on performance, but also on the type of unstable environments faced by leaders today.

With a team of more than twenty researchers, Collins and Hansen studied companies that rose to greatness—beating their industry indexes by a minimum of ten times over fifteen years—in environments characterized by big forces and rapid shifts that leaders could not predict or control. The research team then contrasted these "10X companies" to a carefully selected set of comparison companies that failed to achieve greatness in similarly extreme environments.

The new findings
The study results were full of provocative surprises. Such as:

  • The best leaders were not more risk taking, more visionary, and more creative than the comparisons; they were more disciplined, more empirical, and more paranoid.
  • Innovation by itself turns out not to be the trump card in a chaotic and uncertain world; more important is the ability to scale innovation, to blend creativity with discipline.
  • Following the belief that leading in a "fast world" always requires "fast decisions" and "fast action" is a good way to get killed.
  • The great companies changed less in reaction to a radically changing world than the comparison companies.

The authors challenge conventional wisdom with thought-provoking, sticky, and supremely practical concepts. They include: 10Xers; the 20 Mile March; Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs; Leading above the Death Line; Zoom Out, Then Zoom In; and the SMaC Recipe.

Finally, in the last chapter, Collins and Hansen present their most provocative and original analysis: defining, quantifying, and studying the role of luck. The great companies and the leaders who built them were not luckier than the comparisons, but they did get a higher Return on Luck.

This book is classic Collins: contrarian, data-driven, and uplifting. He and Hansen show convincingly that, even in a chaotic and uncertain world, greatness happens by choice, not chance.

Product Details
  • Amazon Sales Rank: #43 in Books
  • Published on: 2011-10-11
  • Released on: 2011-10-11
  • Original language: English
  • Number of items: 1
  • Dimensions: 1.30" h x 6.30" w x 9.10" l, 1.35 pounds
  • Binding: Hardcover
  • 320 pages
Editorial Reviews Review

Jim Collins on the Writing Process

When I first embarked on a career that required writing, I devoured dozens of books about the process of writing. I soon realized that each writer has weird tricks and idiosyncratic methods. Some wrote late at night, in the tranquil bubble of solitude created by a sleeping world, while others preferred first morning light. Some cranked out three pages a day, workmanlike, whereas others worked in extended bursts followed by catatonic exhaustion. Some preferred the monastic discipline of facing cinder-block walls, while others preferred soaring views.

I quickly learned that I had to discover my own methods. Most useful, I realized that I have different brains at different times of day. In the morning, I have a creative brain; in the evening, I have a critical brain. If I try to edit in the morning, I'm too creative, and if I try to create in the evening, I'm too critical. So, I go at writing like a two piston machine: create in the morning, edit in the evening, create in the morning, edit in the evening…

Yet all writers seem to agree on one point: writing well is desperately difficult, and it never gets easier. It's like running: if you push your limits, you can become a faster runner, but you will always suffer. In nonfiction, writing is thinking; if I can't make the words work, that means I don't know yet what I think. Sometimes after toiling in a quagmire for dozens (or hundreds) of hours I throw the whole effort into the wastebasket and start with a blank page. When I sheepishly shared this wastebasket strategy with the great management writer Peter Drucker, he made me feel much better when he exclaimed, "Ah, that is immense progress!"

The final months of completing Great by Choice required seven days a week effort, with numerous all-nighters. I had naively hoped after writing Good to Great that perhaps I had learned enough about writing that this work might not require descending deep into the dark cave of despair. Alas, the cave of darkness is the only path to producing the best work; there is no easy path, no shorter path, no path of less suffering. Winston Churchill once said that writing a book goes through five phases. In phase one, it is a novelty or a toy; by phase five, it is a tyrant ruling your life, and just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public. And so, exiting the caving blinking in the sunlight, we've killed the monster and hereby fling. We love this book, and have great passion about sharing it with the world—making all the suffering worthwhile.

A Q&A with Morten T. Hansen

Q: How did you and Jim develop ideas together during the research?

Hansen: During our hundreds of research meetings—what we called "chimposiums" (as when two curious chimps get together), Jim and I probed the data, exchanged views, and debated vigorously. We didn't always agree, in which case we did some more analysis to get to the main findings we report in Great by Choice.

Q: Why did Great by Choice take nine years of effort?

Hansen: When Jim and I started out some nine years ago, we did not anticipate that it would take us this long, nor did we know what the results would be. We followed a simple principle—carry out the absolutely best research we could possibly do, no matter how long.

Q: Did you find what you expected, or surprises?

Hansen: The way we did the research was to explore why some companies attained great performance over the long-run while others did not. We did not start with any preconceived ideas and hypotheses about what made the difference. We let the data speak. What we found, and what we report in the book, surprised us a great deal. A few times we scratched our heads because we were so surprised, but that's what the data revealed.

Q: Did you have fun?

Hansen: Analyzing the data, debating, and arriving at some really interesting insights was a great deal of fun. It created joy in my life. It may not be everyone's idea of having a good time, but Jim and I always looked forward to our chimposiums. I hope you will enjoy Great by Choice as much as Jim and I enjoyed the research process!

"Collins and Hansen draw some interesting and counterintuitive conclusions from their research….far from a dry work of social science. Mr. Collins has a way with words, not least with metaphor." (Wall Street Journal )

"A sensible, well-timed and precisely targeted message for companies shaken by macroeconomic crises" (Financial Times )

About the Author

Driven by a relentless curiosity, Jim Collins began his research and teaching career on the faculty at Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he received the Distinguished Teaching Award in 1992. In 1995, he founded a management laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, where he now conducts research and consults with executives from the corporate and social sectors. Jim holds degrees in business administration and mathematical sciences from Stanford University, and honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Colorado and the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University. He has served as a teacher to senior executives and CEOs at over a hundred corporations. He has also worked with social sector organizations, such as: Johns Hopkins Medical School, the Girl Scouts of the USA, the Leadership Network of Churches, the American Association of K-12 School Superintendents, and the United States Marine Corps. In addition, Jim is an avid rock climber and has made one-day ascents of the North Face of Half Dome and the Nose route on the South Face of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. He continues to climb at the 5.13 grade.

Morten T. Hansen is a management professor at the University of California, Berkeley (School of Information) and at INSEAD, France. Formerly a professor at the Harvard Business School, he holds a Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, where he was a Fulbright scholar and received the Jaedicke award for outstanding academic performance. Morten has also been a management consultant with the Boston Consulting Group in London, Stockholm and San Francisco. His award-winning research has been published in leading academic journals, and he is the winner of the Administrative Science Quarterly award for having made exceptional contributions to the field of organization studies. Morten has published several best-selling articles in the Harvard Business Review and is the author of the management book, Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results. Morten regularly delivers keynote addresses and consults for companies across the world. A native of Norway and a former silver medalist in the Norwegian junior track and field championship, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two daughters, and enjoys running, hiking and traveling.

Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews

84 of 86 people found the following review helpful.
5Will you choose greatness?
By Owen Jackson
In Collins' new book he relies on the method you've seen in previous books like Built to Last and Good to Great. What's different in this one is he selected companies not just on their status or explosive growth, but because they succeeded in an extreme and uncertain environment. However, there's a caveat here: his research stopped in 2002, meaning there's no thorough analysis of how companies performed in the last 10 years (aka one of the most uncertain and chaotic business climates in decades). Collins and Hansen believe the future will be unstable and environments will be extreme for the rest of "our lives" (remember, these guys aren't Spring Chickens). So, they try to analyze company performance/greatness within the context of difficulty.

I always wish Amazon would show an easy-to-find Table of Contents for books, so I've created one for you here, complete with a summary of each chapter/section.

Collins and Hansen explain what the method for their book (what I described above), including the definition of a 10Xer, which is a company that beat their industry by 10 fold. Just 7 companies were selected as a 10X case out of 20,400 companies. The seven are Amgen, Biomet, Intel, Microsoft, Progressive Insurance, Southwest Airlines, and Stryker. They don't include Apple because their research lens of Apple vs. Microsoft focused primarily on the 1980s and 1990s (remember they stopped collecting data in 2002), which makes no sense to me. The present environment (the one in which Apple has exploded) is a far more difficult climate than the 80s-90s.

2 - 10Xers
Example of a 10xer is Southwest airlines, whose growth since 1972 is greater than that of Walmart, despite this period being a particularly harsh one for the airline industry. Anecdotes describe historic examples of 10xers and explains they aren't more creative, more visionary, more charismatic, or more ambitious, more blessed by luck, more risk seeking, more heroic, or more bold. The glaring fact that Apple is missing goes against this model, as Jobs and company were many of these things.

Here they introduce discipline as the key that sets 10Xers apart (hence the 20 mile march). 10Xers are focused on data with GREAT discipline and stick to their plan, like a 20 Mile March.

10Xers were not more innovative than the control companies; indeed, they were considered less innovative in some comparisons. 10Xers scale innovation (firing bullets) and then the fire cannonballs once they know what's on target.

Explains "productive paranoia," the idea that you need to build cash reserves and buffers, bound your risk, and show flexibility in looking at macro and micro factors at play in your business and industry.

6 - SMaC
SMaC stands for Specific, Methodological, and Consistent. The more uncertain your environment, the more SMaC you need to be. A SMaC recipe is a set of durable operating principles and practices that create a replicable and consistent success formula.

10Xers weren't more lucky or unlucky than comparisons. They had better ROL because they took full advantage of good luck and minimized the effects of bad luck.

Like Jim's other books, the how to is what's missing. Maintaining strict, rational discipline is a real challenge in business. Emotional Intelligence 2.0 has done wonders for me to keep my head on straight.

32 of 35 people found the following review helpful.
5Steady Marching Through Chaotic Times.
By AdamSmythe
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.

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful.
5Great by Choice is the second/better half of How the Mighty Fall
By Mark P. McDonald
Jim Collins extends and deepens the body of knowledge around the fundamentals of success. Great by Choice represents the second half of Collin's earlier book on company failure - How the Mighty Fall. While that earlier book concentrated on factors that drive failure, this describes the characteristics of sustained success.

This book is classic Collins. Well researched, clearly describes and expertly packaged for executives to incorporate these concepts into their lexicon and thoughts. This book is recommended as the capstone of the study of the fundamentals of great companies.

Great by Choice is a lot like How the Mighty Fall as it's a short, concise and focused book. About half of it is content and half is appendices, FAQs and methodology - just like HtMF. Put the two together and you get a comprehensive look at modern corporate success.

This is a book for understanding and admiring the factors Collin's points out as driving superior performance.

The book describes these factors, but description is not prescription.

This book is not a 'how to' book, nor one that provides much action oriented help. It relies on the reader understanding Collins points and then tailoring them to their situation. That places the burden of value on the reader, which is where it should be as greatness is less a recipe than a recommitment to hard work.

Great by Choice contains a set of core concepts that define the major chapters in the book. Here is a short description of each to provide an idea of what is in Great by Choice and how Collins describes the characteristics of companies that have exceptional performance, what Collins calls 10x.

20 Mile March describes the fanatic discipline that leads you to manage for the long term rather than chasing short-term results or the fade. Essentially this is the business version of the classical Greek axiom of balance and discipline.

Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs by being empirically creative by experimenting intelligently everywhere and exploit where you know you are having success. This is more than the idea of `failing fast'. It is a definition of innovation based on the combination of creativity, discipline and data.

Leading above the death line describes the productive paranoia that was captured by Andy Grove's management mantra. This is a business version of the Boy Scout's principle of `Be Prepared.' This chapter concentrates on the success and practices of preparation and having reserves that enable you to achieve more.

SMaC describes the company's principles that are Specific, Methodolical and Consistent. This chapter in essence describes the power of common vision, direction and culture. Collins points out that SMaC is one of the more powerful ways to exert control in a dynamic world.

Return on Luck discusses how leaders and laggards face unpredictable positive and negative events. This is perhaps one of the best chapters as it describes how Collins and his team investigated the phenomenon of luck. As expected the conclusion is that luck does not play a guiding factor, rather its how you take advantage of good luck and are prepared (death line) for bad luck.

These concepts are all interrelated and go beyond the book' s triangle graphic. You cannot do a 20 mile march well without SMAC and both are worth lest without the preparation associated with leading above the death line.

Overall, I recommend Great by Choice for both fan's of Collins' work and for people who are new to this discussion. Yes this book is a continuation the prior books, but it does a great job of providing new insight without overly repeating prior points.

Great By Choice to be a good place for people to start. You do not need to read Collin's other books, but logically this book is the second half of How the Mighty Fall. I would suggest that if you are going to read both that you read HtMF first as you need to fix that first before the ideas in this book will have an effect.


The book contains strong ideas that are simple to communicate and easy to mentally think about how they fit with your organization. Its easy to see how they would may your company a 10X performer.

The case descriptions are informative, insightful and illustrative. The cases are well worn: Southwest Airlines, Microsoft, Apple, Progressive Insurance and Intel, but well applied.

The use of mountaineering and explorers as non-business based examples will give you the stories to tell around the water cooler.


The book provides powerful description of concepts that we already know. Rewriting Collins' points boil down to the following: have along term vision (20 miles), experiment to innovate (bullets and canon), `Be Prepared' (death line), follow your core (SMaC) and take advantage when possible (Return on Luck)

The companies featured are studied from 1977 to 2002 which was a period of significant change: the internet, oil crisis, stagflation, etc. However, historically economists have dubbed this period part of what they call the great moderation. So while these principles are timeless, they do not account for what has happened and happening now.

There is no treatment of technology in the book. Given that much of the global, collaborative and social world is driven by technology, this is a big omission.



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