When 'Good' is the Enemy of 'Great'

Occasionally, I read a book that I just have to share with people. Good to Great by Jim Collins is one of them. You may remember him as the co-author with Jerry L. Porras of Built to Last. Good to Great could well be considered as a prequel to Built to Last. Built to Last looked at why some companies sustained their greatness over time while other companies fade away. Good to Great looks at what it takes for a company to go from being good to becoming great in the first place.

One of the things that I really like about the book is that Collins did not start out to prove a preconceived idea about what contributed to making a business great. Rather, he, and his many research assistants, culled through mountains of data to see what the research would tell them about becoming great, and only then did they compare and contrast the companies which made the leap to greatness to others that didn’t.

The book begins with a profound single sentence: “Good is the enemy of great.” Too many businesses become good and then stop. What Collins wanted to know was: What was it that caused companies to go from good results to great results? Here’s some of what he found.

The great companies did not have bigger than life, charismatic headline-generating leaders. They had self-effacing, quiet, even shy leaders who put their egos away, put the needs of the company first, and then pursued those needs with tremendous tenacity. They were fanatical about results and willing to do whatever it took to make the company great.

While vision and strategy are important, great companies start with “getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats — and then they figured out where to drive it.” We’ve heard time and again, that people are a company’s most important asset. Collins’ research quantifies this idea and states that it’s the right people who are your most important asset.

Great companies were not afraid to face and articulate the brutal facts that faced them, their industry, or the economy. Rather than waver in the face of this reality, they chose to determine how to best prevail despite the difficulties that lay ahead.

Collins writes about what he calls the “Hedgehog Concept.” This concept is key to going from good to great. Instead of accepting good, great companies ask themselves what it is that they can be best at, regardless of whether they are doing that something currently. Collins’ research showed that if you can’t be the best in the world at what you are doing, then you will never be great. This concept, combined with what it is you are deeply passionate about and with what drives your economic engine, constitutes the Hedgehog Concept. It is “not a goal to be best, a strategy to be best, an intention to be the best, a plan to be best. It is an understanding what you can be best at.” It requires you “to transcend the curse of competence.”

Great companies have a unique “culture of discipline.” This is the concept of internal discipline throughout the company — your people, your thoughts, your actions and your entrepreneurial ethic. When this culture is in place, the company experiences the “magic alchemy of great performance.”

In the great companies, an advance in technology was not the root of their greatness. Rather, it was the application of carefully selected technology, often in pioneering ways that supported their Hedgehog Concept, which made the difference.

The great companies did not become so by some huge fell swoop. There was “no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no miracle moment. Instead, the process resembled relentlessly pushing a giant heavy flywheel in one direction, turn upon turn, building momentum until the point of breakthrough and beyond.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg on what this great book has to teach you. It is also a book that is readable and the information applicable and useable.

Several contractors I have spoken to call Good to Great their management Bible. I don’t know about that, but I have given it to several of my consulting clients and find myself going back to it again and again. Maybe you should check it out as well.