Book Review – Good to Great by Jim Collins


Jim Collins’ Good to Great is another one of those business books that is often recommended or on “top” lists. The book looks at how great companies get great and stay great. The book is for good companies because it answers the question: how did the great companies go from good to great and maintain it.

This book is a few years old now, being first published in 2001, so some of the examples have not stood the test of contemporary disruption. Good to Great however, has something significant over the many books that were to follow offering business development advice to business owners. It contains findings from five years of substantial research into three groups of US companies: good-to-great companies, direct comparison companies, and unsustained comparison companies.

The first group were average for a sustained period of time before making the leap to greatness, and maintaining it over a similar period again. Direct comparison companies were those that are similar in the market with the same opportunities as the good-to-great group but remained average or worse. Unsustained comparison companies made a short leap into greatness but slid back to average or worse.

This way of analysing what makes a company go from good to great in a sustainable way is therefore packed full of learnings that any business can take on board for their own good to great journey.

Modelled on a “flywheel” framework and categorised on a linear path from Build Up to Breakthrough, the concepts are broken up into groups:

  • Disciplined People
  • Disciplined Thought
  • Disciplined Action


The flywheel is evoked because it doesn’t take a big effort to get a lot of momentum. A snapshot of these concepts are as follows:

Leadership – without going into too much details about “Level 5 Leadership”, the key is that successful leaders in good-to-great companies are not the cliche hard-hitting ego driven task masters but are rather a self-aware, results driven, and highly emotionally intelligent mix of humility and professionalism.

First Who … Then What – This is about getting the right people as quickly as possible, getting rid of the wrong people, then worrying about what they are going to do! This seems completely counter-intuitive, but what it is saying is that the right people, the right character traits, are more important than professional abilities. The observation being that these people are self-motivated, eager to learn and adapt, and willing to be trained and educated.

Confront the Brutal Facts – good-to-great companies do not shy away from the reality around them, they face up to challenges, do not shirk away from the facts, but never lose faith. This could take the form of external realties, but also internal ones. It is always important to be self-aware of your own strengths and weaknesses, as well as your mistakes and those of your peers and the company as a whole when they occur. The business culture should be one where the team feels comfortable in admitting to mistakes, challenging decisions, and passing on learnings to the rest of the team.

The Hedgehog Concept – how can you make your company into one that can roll up into a ball of its own defences? By being the best in the world at something among what you do, are passionate about, and by selecting a market factor that you can focus on. If you can make all your decisions align with those defences, success will follow.

A Culture of Discipline – is required to maintain the hedgehog concept. Keeping your eye on the goals that derive from the questions asked and decisions made.

Technological Acceleration – The important point about technological acceleration is to not expect it to be in itself the goal. Which in 2019 is a harder concept to grasp when we read about so many tech-based start ups seemingly becoming over night successes. This is not to say that technology can’t be the primary driver toward greatness, that is hard to avoid these days. The key is not to see it as the entire goal, but rather as a means to an end. The lessons are not to adopt the latest tech fads, but to choose the right technologies that assist in reaching the goal along a strategic path.

One way of learning how to be better is by learning from the success of others. Good to Great by Jim Collins has packaged substantial research into many successful companies, compared them with those who haven’t quite made it, or who had it and lost it. The result is a very important read as relevant in concepts, if not in every example, today as it was 18 years ago. All businesses can learn from the lessons that the Good to Great can teach us, in essence we are learning from the successes of the successful companies within it. It is an essential book for every business owner.

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