Great by Choice

Great by Choice

One hundred years ago, two teams raced to be the first humans ever to reach the South Pole. The winning team, led by Norwegian Roald Amundsen, took no risks with unproven technology. He dressed in animal skins like an Eskimo and traveled with skis and dogsled.

The competition, led by Englishman Robert F. Scott, sought to gain advantage using motorized sledges and high-tech clothing. His men not only trailed Amundsen’s in reaching the pole; none of them made it back alive.

This bleak history lesson serves as the backdrop to business writer Jim Collins’ most recent book, Great by Choice. If you are familiar with Collins’ first best-seller, Good to Great, you will already be familiar with his analytical dissection of businesses as a means of finding common traits that separate successful businesses from their inferior competitors. This time, he is joined by co-author Morten Hansen, and they exhaustively analyzed 7 companies who enjoyed tremendous success during a 15 year period ending in 2002 and compared them to 7 competitors during the same time frame. To add a little zing to the storytelling, he used the South Pole story as a metaphor to illustrate their findings. It seems the same traits that characterized success with the companies he studied could be neatly applied to the expeditions. In a nutshell, here’s what the data reveal about successful companies:

  1. 1.       They are highly disciplined. This sounds like a no-brainer. But there are nuances to the concept of discipline. It means pushing yourself to meet your goals in spite of adverse weather; it also means forcing yourself not to go further than your goal on a good day when you should be resting. Collins nicknames this principle the 20-Mile March. “The 20-Mile March ,” the authors write, “creates two types of self-imposed discomfort: the discomfort of unwavering commitment to high performance in difficult conditions, and the discomfort of holding back in good conditions.”
  2. 2.       They are not necessarily the ones with the best ideas. They do, however, devote a lot of resources to good ideas after thoroughly testing them. It’s a principle Collins calls Bullets, Then Cannonballs. “The best leaders we studied did not have a visionary ability to predict the future,” the authors say. “They observe what worked, figured out why it worked and built upon proven foundations.”
  3. They sleep with one eye open. Even when everything is going great, successful companies are vigilantly looking for the slightest sign of trouble. Dubbed Productive Paranoia, this is the temperament that causes a company to prepare in advance for bumps in the road and have a defensive posture that enables them to survive the blows that would otherwise cause the company to fail.

The book is subtitled, “Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All.” And that for me is the main takeaway. Success is isn’t really possible without that word “despite” somewhere in the story—despite the economy, despite changing circumstances, despite conventional wisdom… there’s always an element of overcoming in any success story. It reaffirms my belief that when economic downturns come, you don’t have to participate. People like to believe that the times we live in are some kind of historic anomaly, when in fact all of history is one upheaval after another. And if turbulence and change are a common element to all of human experience, then the ones who succeed are the ones who don’t let the weather deter them from their goals. If you sit in your tent and wait for the weather to moderate every time a storm passes through, you may not make it home alive.

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