Book Review: Great by Choice

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A couple of years ago, I picked up Jim Collins and Morten Hansen’s book Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, And Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All to check a few facts. Two hours later, I was still reading. Recently, that happened again.

I realized that I never reviewed Great by Choice for my website, so I picked it up and, just like the last time, found myself still reading a couple of hours later. I think Great by Choice is, Jim Collins’ best book. The partnership with Morten Hansen makes the reasoning tighter and the research a bit broader than in Collins’ other books. Here’s the authors’ statement of what they want the book to achieve.

“First, we believe the future will remain unpredictable and the world unstable for the rest of our lives, and we wanted to understand the factors that distinguish great organizations, those that prevail against extreme odds, in such environments. Second, by looking at the best companies and their leaders in extreme environments, we gain insights that might otherwise remain hidden when studying leaders in more tranquil settings.”

The opening chapter, Thriving in Uncertainty, is an introduction to the book. The research is typical Jim Collins. He went looking for enterprises that had great performance over many years in a particularly turbulent environment and that started from a position of vulnerability.

In this chapter, the authors share their findings about five what they call “entrenched myths” that were disproved by their research. Here are the myths.

1. Successful leaders in a turbulent world are bold, risk-seeking visionaries.
2. Innovation distinguishes those companies that succeed in a fast-moving, uncertain and chaotic world.
3. A threat-filled world favors the speedy.
4. Radical change on the outside requires radical change on the inside.
5. Great enterprises have a lot better luck than other enterprises.

All of those, are false. So, what is this book about? It’s simple, Great by Choice will prepare you to succeed in a world that you cannot predict.

Chapter two is “10Xers.” That’s what the authors call the super successful and adaptable companies that they studied. The core of the chapter is the story of Roald Amundsen and his race to the South Pole. Next, they define 10X leadership as three important things: fanatic discipline; productive paranoia; empirical creativity.

Every chapter ends the same way. There’s a summary of key findings, of course, but also unexpected findings and another part called “One Key Question,” which they suggest you answer.

The authors call chapter three “The 20-Mile March” and it’s about having concrete, clear, and rigorous performance mechanisms that keep you on track. They phrase this philosophy as a commitment to high performance in difficult conditions and (this is important) “the discomfort of holding back in good conditions.”

This all made sense to me. I’m a proponent of getting a little better, pushing forward, and making a little progress every day. The finding that I found surprising and helpful was that the idea of the 20-mile march also includes not pressing too hard ahead when conditions are good. It’s a continued steadiness. When times are good, stick to your discipline. Don’t try to go explosive.

Chapter four is titled “Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs.” For the authors, a bullet is a test that you make to determine what works. A bullet is a low-cost, low-risk, low-distraction trial. It’s what puts the “empirical” in “empirical creativity.”

This is what I learned in my early direct-response career. You test things. When those things work, you expand a little bit, but you also understand that many of the things you test won’t work.

Chapter five is “Leading above the Death Line.” The chapter is about risk in two areas. First, it is about the things you can do to minimize the risk of unforeseen and uncontrollable events. Then, the authors talk about three kinds of risk. Death line risk is where there’s a risk of destroying or severely damaging the enterprise. Asymmetric risk is where the downside is much larger than the upside. Uncontrollable risk is what it sounds like, something that can’t be either controlled or managed. The big takeaway for me is in the “One Key Question” that the authors suggested you ask about yourself and your enterprise: “How much time before the risk profile changes?”

Chapter six is about “SMaC.” SMaC stands for Specific, Methodical, and Consistent. The lessons in this chapter were a lot like the ones in “20-Mile March” chapter. The key point is that in an uncertain, fast-changing environment, you need to be specific, methodical, and consistent.

The final chapter is about “Return on Luck.” As you might expect, the basic thing to learn is you’re going to have good luck and you’re going to have bad luck, and what’s going to matter is what you do with it. That’s a lot like the message of a bevy of motivational speakers, but it’s still important. My mother had a question she asked in all kinds of situations: “What good can we make of this?” You improve your return on luck by asking questions like that

Bottom Line

As with every book with Jim Collins’ name on the cover, this one is superbly written with dozens of well-told stories, liberally seasoned with facts. What makes this book special is the tightness of the reasoning and the phrasing of the research. The big plus of this book, for me, was that this is not only about organizations. You can apply the things you find here to a career or a project or just about any part of life. You’re going to have luck. It’s what you do with it that matters. To find out how to do the best possible job dealing with the luck you get, read Great by Choice.

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