Great By Choice

"10X leaders can be bland or colorful, uncharismatic or magnetic, understated or flamboyant, normal to the point of dull, or just flat-out weird - none of this really matters, as long as they're passionately driven for a cause beyond themselves."

- Great By Choice, page 33

It takes him a while to write them, but man; are they good (scratch that – “great”) when they do finally hit the shelves.  I’m talking about Jim Collins’ seemingly bi-decennial blockbuster business books, and his latest, Great by Choice is no disappointment.  Picking up where his last hits (Built to Last, Good to Great and How the Mighty Fall) left off, Great by Choice examines the success (and failure) of great businesses in times of “uncertainty, chaos and luck.”

Utilizing the strengths of his dedicated, multi-body research team, Collins – along with his new co-author, Morten T. Hansen – compared 11 company sets over a thirty-year period to determine if there were certain behaviours that could be identified in highly successful companies.  (There are, by the way.)

Collins and Hansen labelled these successful companies “10Xers,” meaning that over the 30 year study period, they outperformed the general market by a factor of at least 10.  What the authors learned about the factors that led to this terrific accomplishment may surprise you.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

The 10X Paradox

"10Xers reject the choice between consistency and change; they embrace consistency and change, both at the same time."
- Great by Choice, page 144

There’s a popular myth in our society that the most successful companies (and individuals, for that matter) reach the upper echelons of success by swinging for the fences.  By innovating something radically new and different.  By taking huge risks – putting it “all on the line.”  While Collins and Hansen are willing to admit that such tactics can sometimes lead to one-off success, the great companies that last – through good times and bad – are not the ones that make the massive leaps and huge risks. Instead, they display a consistence balance of Fanatic Discipline (sticking to their core values and process through good times and bad), Productive Paranoia (constantly asking “what if?” and planning for the inevitable “bad luck” that we’re all subject to), Empirical Creativity (innovating through testing and direct observation), and Level 5 Ambition (aspiring to something greater than personal success).

It’s the balance of these four factors – Discipline, Paranoia, Creativity, and Ambition – that makes a company great.  And there are some simple ideas in Great by Choice that you can apply to your own life and business, regardless of what you do or who you do it for.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Impose the 20 Mile March

"The 20 Mile March creates two types of self-imposed discomfort: (1) the discomfort of unwavering commitment to high performance in difficult conditions, and (2) the discomfort of holding back in good conditions."
- Great by Choice, page 45

In a modern day take on the “Tortoise and the Hair” fable, the “20 Mile March” was a consistent theme throughout all the 10Xers that Collins and Hansen studied.  In its essence, a “20 Mile March” mentality means setting a benchmark for a certain period of time, and then hitting that benchmark.  Consistently.  While this may sound like basic advice, it includes two fundamental shifts in behaviour from what undisciplined people and companies might display.

One, it means that regardless of whatever “bad luck,” extenuating circumstances, or delays we might experience, we will achieve that benchmark, come hell or high water.  It’s a fanatical dedication to the bar, and doing everything humanly possible to hit it.

Two, it also means not getting carried away with our successes.  The “20 Mile March”-ers outlined in Great by Choice not only had the tenacity to push through obstacles to achieve their benchmarks, but the self-discipline to hold back from jumping on new opportunities simply because they presented themselves.

Perhaps most importantly, the 10X companies were extremely careful in defining their “20 Mile March”.  The March had to be something that made sense for their industry, large enough to stretch them and encourage growth, but small enough that it was possible to achieve.  The time frame had to be long enough to allow them to maintain control over hitting the target, but short enough to keep their focus.

So the question, of course, is, “What’s your 20 Mile March?”  For your business, your life and your objectives, what’s the benchmark that you can set that is both achievable and stretches you?  And will you stay committed to it through good times and bad?

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Bullets Before Cannonballs

"A bullet is a low-cost, low-risk, and low-distraction test or experiment."
- Great by Choice, page 96

One of my favorite analogies in Great by Choice is that of “bullets and cannonballs.”  Bullets, as Collins and Hansen define above, are “low-cost, low-risk, and low-distraction test[s] or experiment[s],” while cannonballs are the activities you put a ton of energy, time, and money into.  The image Collins and Hansen use is that of two ships, engaging in battle.  Fire one cannonball only to realize you’ve missed your target, and you may not have enough ammunition left over to fire another one.  Fire several bullets, however, and you can learn the right trajectory before you use the majority of your gunpowder firing a cannonball.

The 10Xers studied in the book were constantly probing: experimenting with new products, features, markets, or ventures.  But they never fired a cannonball until they were fairly sure of its success.  Collins and Hansen call these “calibrated cannonballs,” and they had a much higher probability of success than the “uncalibrated cannonballs” fired by the comparison companies.

It may be exciting to put all your resources into a gamble, but it never leads to long term success. In fact, the “lucky hit of an uncalibrated cannonball can often breed a gambling mentality and ultimately sink the company.”

Be sure you’re firing enough bullets to stay apprised to new opportunities, but don’t fire your cannonballs until you’re fairly certain of the outcome.

I was a big fan of Good to Great and, if anything, Jim Collins’ writing has only gotten better with time.  I think what I love most about his books is the empirical data interwoven with great stories of human accomplishment.  For me, Great By Choice was an uplifting reminder of the strength of human spirit and the rewards that come to those who are diligent, focused, curious, and passionate.  Like Collins’ other books, Great by Choice is as applicable for individuals as it is for corporations, truly transcending the world of Wall Street.  After all, in Jim’s own words: “Greatness is not just a business quest; it’s a human quest.”

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Chris Taylor

ABOUT Chris Taylor

Founder of Actionable Books, Chris Taylor is a writer, entrepreneur and speaker. He spends his daylight hours helping consultants and employees alike find meaning in their work and discover rich team relationships through his company, Actionablebooks...
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