Good to Great II

2003-01-22

The ideas from Jim Collins' book Good to Great continue to rattle around in my brain. One thing that impressed me was that page one of the book showed a picture of his research team. He is honest enough to credit his entire team, and the text is peppered with exchanges from their regular discussion meetings. Thus we get to know the individuals a bit, and we see how some of Collins' conclusions emerged through the dialectical process of discussion and debate. Here again there is a connection to the scientific (rather than ideological) approach pursued by Collins and his team.

A related item that struck me was his mention of a great company (I can't remember which one) that listed every one of its employees in its annual report. Companies and organizations can often seem faceless, but in reality there is no such thing as the organization, only the individuals that continually build and sustain it. Even a small organization like my employer can appear from the outside to be a monolithic entity, when in fact it consists of many individuals who make unique contributions. I think it behooves all organizations to highlight those individuals so that outsiders get to know the people involved (capitalism with a human face?). Within the Jabber Software Foundation I was doing that for a while by interviewing individual contributors, and I really need to renew that practice (indeed I have one interview in progress, so look for it soon).

Another powerful concept from Good to Great is what I think of as the organizational "sweet spot": the confluence of what the organization's people are passionate about, what they can pursue to greatness or even perfection, and what is uniquely profitable for the firm (or, in a non-profit setting, uniquely productive of value). I call these the "Three Ps" (passion, perfection, and profit) and they go beyond older notions of core competency to focus organizational energies on an even more concentrated point. And that point is a kind of fulcrum for the organization, which can set it apart from all other organizations in its niche.

This may sound highfalutin, but Collins grounds his insights with some gritty realism. That realism is captured in something he calls the Stockdale Paradox, named after Admiral James Stockdale, who was held as a prisoner of war for over 7 years in North Vietnam. Stockdale found through hard experience that while it is important to "keep the faith" regarding one's best possibilities, that optimism must not prevent one from recognizing the most brutal facts about one's present situation. Collins presents the Stockdale Paradox as absolutely necessary to greatness, since one must have high aspirations but never lose contact with reality, even if that reality is not pretty. (My father used to call this "having your head in the clouds but your feet in the clay" -- at least I think that's what he was getting at...) It's not easy to face the fact that one has shortcomings and to address them, and organizations usually are no better at that than individuals. Both individuals and organizations start to believe their own PR after a while and to begin thinking of themselves as uniquely valuable. A little humility and honesty goes a long way here.

There's more in Good to Great than what I've blogged about here, but these are some of the aspects I've found most valuable. To absorb more, read the book or check out Jim Collins' website.


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