From Good to Great to Built to Last

Built to Last

Finally we are at the last chapter of “Good to Great” with the title “From Good To Great To Built To Last”. This is chapter 9 of a fairly short book if you take out all the extra material at the end. Jim Collins set out to answer the question what makes good companies into great companies. Before he wrote “Good to Great” he wrote “Built to Last”.

Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies
New York: HarperBusiness, 1994 (with Jerry I. Porras). 321 pages, 10 chapters.
Built to Last presents the results of a six-year research project into what makes enduring great companies. It has spent nearly five years on the Business Week bestseller list, had over 70 printings, and has been translated into 29 languages.

Writing “Built to Last” actually triggered the research for “Good to Great”. Jim was posed the dilemma that “Built to Last” was a great book but did not reveal the transition from good to great.

Jim, with the help of the research team, determined that “Built to Last” should be ignored to better determine the real reasons for changing. Instead of trying to back fit the original ideas, it was deemed more valuable to start from scratch.

At the end Jim revisits “Built to Last” and matches it with what was found from “Good to Great”. By and large, the “Good to Great” explains how these companies became successful in the first place.

Much of the chapter shows how the two books and concepts are compatible. Several ideas from “Built to Last” are introduced. One of these ideas is where the great companies will have core values and purpose which essentially does not change over time. Another key point is that it does not appear to matter what these values or purposes are as long as they are there. This would be the common rallying point for the company which the employees understand and believe in. Business strategies and operating practices on the other hand change quickly over time. These two different areas are seen as necessary and balanced in their changing and non-changing natures.

“Built to Last” has the concept of something called BHAG. BHAG stands for “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” and corresponds to what the hedgehog concept says. It is supposed to be something really ambitious but also possible within the framework of the company. Boeing had a BHAG to enter the commercial airline industry in the 1950’s. Before that time they were only focused on government contracts. The insight at Boeing came from understanding the market and knowing that it would be possible to be the best at commercial airlines based on their experience with military jets.

The last idea of the book comes from a question “Why bother being great? Isn’t good just good enough?”. This was something I thought about while reading the book as well. It seems like so much work to become great and sometimes it looks like good is all that will come.

The reply, from Jim, is that it actually takes more work to run a good company than a great one. This seems counter-intuitive at first. How could it be less work? Jim explains that when you have the right people, with the right concept, with the right leaders, the alignment is so strong and the purpose so fulfilling that the company essentially runs itself. It comes back to the flywheel. Once you get everyone on board and pushing against the wheel in the same direction with the same simple clarity, it becomes easier and easier to accomplish difficult tasks. The fox mentality has little focus and even less understanding of how to pull in the right people with the right tasks. There is a lot of waste in fox based companies. So, that is the point. Why waste all that time and energy just to be good. Why not be more efficient and be great?

Hard to argue with that.

One final point from the book. When you work at a great company, you are happy because you are doing what you are meant to do without having to struggle against the typical lack of direction and focus. You are glad to do what you are doing and you are just as happy to go home and live your meaningful life outside work as well. You are living at your full potential which really just translates to you doing what comes natural. Selling your time to a good company is really just a compromise.

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