Jim Collins: The Best Author in Business Books
The best author in business writing is not a business person. That’s why he’s the best.
Author Jim Collins might take some offense, and not unreasonably. He has turned himself into a business enterprise with justified success. But Collins is only a business person as a sideline to his primary function as an academic, and it’s his academic approach that elevates his writing above everything else I’ve read.
All the business writing I’ve encountered – aside from Collins – is based on personal experience. And a significant portion of it is not so much enterprise management as explorations of the specific personality of the author. This doesn’t make it bad; in fact it’s often quite insightful and useful. But personal experience is a single data point, and in a sea of uncertainty one data point has only a ghostly relevance.
Collins’ writing is different because it arises from a completely different basis. A business question intrigues Collins, he puts together a research team, and he spends years gathering information relevant to the question. The team then distills this information into findings which are published as one of Collins’ books.
The Collins method examines a group of companies that exhibit a common characteristic. Companies that were merely okay, then greatly outperformed the market for at least 15 years, going from Good To Great. Companies that sustained performance for 30 years, and seemed to be Great By Choice. And companies that have been around over 70 years, some going back to the 1800s, that are Built To Last.
Collins understands that finding what great performers have in common is not enough. If all the successful companies in a study innovated a great deal does that mean innovation is a key to performance? Not necessarily; in How The Mighty Fall Collins found – against his own expectations – that failed companies innovated just as much as those that did well.
To avoid “discovering” commonalities that actually do not differentiate between success and failure, Collins identifies a “comparison company” for each company in his focus group. The comparison company is in the same industry as the focus company, has a similar history and comparable economic status. To the extent possible they are “peas in a pod.” Yet for every focus company that goes in one direction, there’s a similar comparison company that goes in the opposite direction.
Now, Collins asks, what behaviors do the focus companies exhibit in common in contrast to what’s going on in the comparison companies? It is these differences that differentiate them, and their success and failure.
Thus the findings are nobody’s opinion, nor are they dependent on one particular personality or set of circumstances. Being more generally applicable they are lessons that can be applied virtually anywhere, by virtually anyone.
The Value: Practical Advice For Repeatable Results
I believe there is objective, inherent value in Collins’ writing that the bulk of business writing lacks because his method identifies specific practices that can be executed by practically anyone to produce repeatable results.
I’m not implying it’s easy just because it’s doable and in theory anyone can. Building a world class business or transforming a mediocrity is hard work that takes years or decades. But with the requisite people skills and tenacity Collins’ writing is a road map to getting it done, in a way no other body of work I’ve read has been.
Let’s compare Collins’ advice to that found in Execution by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan.
I’ve seen Execution on a number of office bookshelves – it has a big following. And it’s a fine book; these are seriously accomplished business leaders and thinkers. I’ll apologize now to Messrs. Bossidy and Charan and their fans for choosing to “pick on” them. In doing so I’m not picking out their work as particularly problematic, only representative of a different – and yes, in my opinion less useful – approach to business writing than that employed by Collins.
Recognizing the admonition that those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones let’s also acknowledge that I am an author in the model of Execution, speaking from personal experience with little empiric evidence appended to my claims of wisdom. The style of writing of Bossidy, Charan, me, and thousands of others is not bad or without value, but merely limited in comparison to the value provided by the Collins method.
Collins and Execution examine how an enterprise chooses new lines of business to enter. How do we evaluate the risks?
The Usual Approach: Consult Your Oracles; Pray They’re Right
You start by asking four basic questions about each [idea]:
Is the idea consistent with the realities of the marketplace?
Does it mesh with our organization’s capabilities?
Are we pursuing more ideas than we can handle?
Will the idea make money?
You get the answers from robust dialogue among the business leaders, with help from the planning staff. Then together you can make a decision about which ideas to pursue.
This is nebulous at best. “The realities of the marketplace” don’t even exist in all cases. When Federal Express pioneered the logistics of overnight, door-to-door shipping there wasn’t a demonstrated need for the service. There was no marketplace to be examined until FedEx created it.
Question three about the number of ideas being pursued is valid, but off topic and irrelevant to deciding which of those ideas will work.
“Will the idea make money?” is circular. The entire discussion is meant to determine if an idea can be profitable. When trying to decide if an idea will make money, asking “Will the idea make money?” is spinning our wheels.
This is a characteristic of Execution. There’s nothing precisely wrong with its advice; it just doesn’t amount to enough in the concrete sense.
The advice on how to promote discussion that contains both vibrant argument and progress towards shared vision and goals is insightful and worthy of emulation. But at the end of the day how a company navigates the perilous waters of picking new product ideas to pursue comes down to “Cross your fingers that someone in the room had crystal ball premonitions.”
The Collins Approach: More Science Than Divination
Collins found something different – something more specific about choosing the right ideas. His finding is that innovative businesses expanding their product lines with great success aren’t necromancers with an ethereal gift. They’re smart but relatively normal people who can’t predict what’s going to work – so they try a great many things using a cautious, incremental and specific method. The majority of ventures fail and are abandoned. The successful are expanded and funded.
Collins calls it “bullets, then cannonballs,” referring to the “firing” of many small, cheap bullets before investing in the heft and expense of a cannonball. Collins’ bullets are “low cost…low risk…low distraction” explorations that generate empirical evidence of what works.
Collins spells out the bullets and cannonballs process:
Assess: Did your bullets hit anything?
Consider: Do any of your successful bullets merit conversion to a big cannonball?
Convert: Concentrate resources and fire a cannonball once calibrated.
Don’t fire uncalibrated cannonballs.
Terminate bullets that show no evidence of eventual success.
Years later the successful cannonballs often seem to have come from nowhere as strokes of genius, but they weren’t. They were what remained when all the duds fell by the wayside.
A “fire bullets, then cannonballs” approach better explains the success of 10X companies than big-leap innovations and predictive genius…10Xers appear to have no better ability to predict impending change and events than the comparisons. They aren’t visionary geniuses; they’re empiricists.
Collins finds that successful companies had no crystal ball, no wizard with time traveling vision. They had an utterly pragmatic, even mundane approach: try everything; bet the farm on nothing until experience demonstrates what works. Then go all in, assuming risk not based on “dialogue,” vague “help from the planning staff” and hunches, but on empirical evidence.
Bullets Then Cannonballs, And So Much More
Bullets then cannonballs is not a uniquely distinctive example of strategy that works in Collins’ books. It is one of many equally relevant, specific, documented strategies that Collins’ has written about:
Level 5 Leadership – it’s not what you think it is
First Who…Then What – the right people are even more important than the right idea
Confronting the Brutal Facts – “death knells” are best dealt with by hitting them head on
The Hedgehog Concept – it’s all about clarity, even simplistic clarity
The Flywheel vs the Doom Loop – extraordinary success is often NOT the result of one, or even a few, extraordinary products
Clock Building vs Time Telling – what happens after you’re gone is even more important than what happens while you’re here
The Tyranny of “Or” vs The Genius of “And” – a compulsory choice between this OR that is often a misperception caused by lack of imagination
Preserving the Core and Stimulating Progress – knowing what should never change while everything else must
BHAGs: Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals
The 20 Mile March – like Level 5 Leadership, disciplined consistency is not what you think it is
Collins’ Findings: Working Everywhere, Available to Everyone
The power of Collins’ method arises from finding and describing straightforward concepts like “bullets, then cannonballs” that have worked in multiple companies across the entire range of modern commerce. The industries represented in Good To Great are pharmaceuticals, consumer electronics retail, financial services, personal care products, paper products, grocery stores, steel production, office equipment, drug stores and cigarettes. The same strategies work in steel production and finance. They work to create health in pharmaceuticals and harm it in cigarette manufacturing.
The method doesn’t leave us doubting “will that work here?” The Collins method has a built-in assurance of the relevance of its findings to all business…and to all of us.
 Bossidy, Larry. Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, Crown Business: Random House, Inc., 2002, pp 214-215
 Collins, Jim. Great By Choice. Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen, HarperCollins Publishers, 2011, p 81
 Collins, p 83
 Collins, pp 96-97