Review: Good to Great, Why some companies make the leap… and others don’t by Jim Collins

good_to_greatPublished: 2001, 274 pages, 10 CDs (10:02)
Reviewed: September 2011 by Tyler Christensen
Other Reviews: n/a
Official Site: http://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/good-to-great.html

Overview: Good to Great is a business classic, written in 2001, that explains with substantial research the characteristics that move good fortune 500 companies (those beating the market) to great ones (those beating the market by at least 3 times over a sustained 15 year period). I almost consider the book a “must read” for everyone, even those with no interest in business, investments and the like, because it is essentially a book about how to be extraordinary.

Who will benefit most by reading this book: CEOs of fortune 500 companies.

How the rest of us can benefit: This is a well researched book that points out how anyone can make the leap from good to great. I think this applies especially well to your professional life, but it can apply to your personal life as well.

Complete Review: The principles described in G2G certainly apply to individuals in both their professional and personal lives. I want to write about two of the principles described (the Hedgehog concept, and momentum and the flywheel) because I think they are particularly applicable to becoming great at whatever it is you want to become great at.

The hedgehog concept. One of the most striking findings of the 11 companies that qualified as “good to great” was that they became great by focusing on doing one thing really well. Collins likens this to the hedgehog, who when attacked by a cunning fox, simply curls into a ball with its spiky quills facing out. The fox (representative of good companies, ideas, and people) can never get to the hedgehog because it does this one thing really well. When I read this chapter (chapter five, I believe) my thoughts went to Warren Buffet whose investment mantra is invest in the things you understand–there is no need to diversify if you invest in the right companies. This philosophy served him well as he rose to become the richest man in the world by doing one thing well–investing in companies he understood. Collins, outlines three conditions of the hedgehog concept: being deeply passionate, understanding what you can (and can’t) be the best in the word at, and understanding what drives your economic engine. You can see and hear him discuss this concept at: http://www.jimcollins.com/media_topics/hedgehog-concept.html (Note: I found that the videos didn’t work on firefox but worked fine on IE).

First, you must be deeply passionate about something to truly become great. For business managers this means that they need to find something that gets their employees excited, that motivation should come from being part of something really great, not because of extrinsic rewards. For individuals the goal is to align the activities that consume most of your time (like jobs, being a parent, etc.) with those things that you are most excited about. This is why I became a teacher. It is “what I think about when I have nothing else to think about.” I will often awake in the middle of the night, or stop part-way through a jog to note down ideas that come to me for things to do in the classroom. I love working with students as they develop as teachers and as individuals. I am also passionate about my family… I realize this is may be somewhat contrary to the hedgehog principle (having two loves), but I find that the principles outlined work equally well applied to your personal (home) life.

Second, you have to have an understanding of what you can be the best in the world at. You don’t have to be the best yet, or even have a goal for becoming the best, you simply need to understand what you have the potential to become the best at. This idea makes a lot of sense to me. Everyone can become the best in the world at something, but coming to understand what that thing is can be be a long and arduous journey. I have been fortunate in my doctoral studies to be able to do research on an aspect of teaching I care deeply about: reflection. As I have read and studied the role of reflection in practice I have been able to find my niche: collaborative reflection. This is something that I know I can understand and promote better than anyone else alive, which is why it became the subject of my dissertation. If you want to know more about my ideas on reflection you can read some of the papers I’ve written about it, found at: www.tylerchristensen.com.

Finally, you must be able to make a living or be sustained in dedicating so much of yourself to your hedgehog concept. For companies this means being able to articulate how what drives their economic engine, or what creates profit, is essential in building the company. As individuals the question might be tweaked to “how might others assess your impact on them?” This can be tricky… hopefully you can make a decent living in doing something you are passionate about and are the best in the world at. Certainly teachers are not paid very well, however, I believe that this principle is more than bottom line finance. I think it’s more about having the resources you need to be able to do what you love and not have to worry excessively about finances. For me as a teacher that means I need to be savvy with my investments so that I won’t have to work second and third jobs to make ends meet.

Where these three principles intersect is your hedgehog concept. I’ve identified mine: collaborative reflection. It would be worth your time to consider what your hedgehog concept is. I believe that everyone should be the best in the world at something in order to truly contribute to society. That contribution might come by being exceptional mother who provides exceptionally for her children (like my wife), or by being a great friend, teacher, income tax lawyer, etc. Whatever you choose, choose to be the best.

The flywheel. This chapter really got me thinking about what it takes to be great personally and professionally. While I have a lot to say about this, unfortunately I don’t have the time today and will have to write about it later…

Tyler Christensen
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Tyler Christensen

Tyler is a husband and dad, professor, writer, web designer, and DIYer.
Tyler Christensen
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