Great by Choice (by: Jim Collins)

Great-by-Choice1 Overview: This incredible book tackles the question of why in spite of uncertainty, chaos and market volatility, some companies thrive and others flounder.  Collins tackles this question by comparing companies who out performed their competitors by a factor of 10 (he calls them 10Xers) given a similar timeframe and set of variables. Collins research unearths three remarkably profound, yet simple characteristics of the leaders of these 10Xers and they make up the framework for the book.

      • 10X leaders have Fanatical Discipline
      • 10X leaders have Empirical Creativity
      • 10X leaders have Productive Paranoia


Each chapter contains numerous case studies and anecdotes.  These will not be included in this summary, however, they are priceless and should be read by anyone who considers themselves a student of leadership, or simply wants to get better at what they do.  The purpose of this summary is to draw out the major principles presented in this book to serve both as a reference for those who have read the book, and to inspire those who haven’t, to take the time to read it.

Chapter 1: Thriving in Uncertainty

We can not predicted the future. But we can create it.”

This chapter uses empirical to debunk several entrenched leadership myths.

Myth 1 – Successful leaders in a turbulent world are bold, risk-seeking visionaries

  • Contrary Finding – Great leaders a. identify what works, b. find out why, c. build on proven foundations

Myth 2 – Innovation distinguishes successful leaders in fast moving, uncertain and chaotic environment

  • Contrary Finding – Innovation is not as important as the ability to scale innovation

Myth 3 – A threat filled world favors the speedy

  • Contrary Finding – Fast is a good way to get killed.  Great leaders know when go fast and when not to.

Myth 4 – Radical change on the outside requires radical change on the inside

  • Contrary Finding – Great leaders react less to the changing world.  Selective , strategic change trumps reactive change.

Myth 5 – Great organizations with tremendous success have a lot more good luck

  • Contrary Finding. – Luck is not the key, how you hand good or bad luck is what matters.

Chapter 2 – 10Xers

Victory awaits him who has everything in order – luck people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.” Ronald Amundsen (explorer, first man to the South Pole)

This chapter begins with an incredible comparison of Amundsen and Scott, the two explorers who where vying to be the first man to the South Pole. Collins summarizes Amundsen’s preparation as follows: “You prepare with intensity, all the time, so that when conditions turn against you, you can draw from a deep reservoir of strength. And equally, you prepare so that when conditions turn in your favor, you can strike hard.”

Collins then lays out the framework for the book, identifying that in each case, the leaders of the 10X companies had “Level 5 Ambition” (a reference from a previous Collins book Good to Great) as the anchor surrounded by:

    • Fanatical Discipline – Keeps the leader on track
    • Empirical Creativity – Keeps the leader vibrant
    • Productive Paranoia – Keeps the leader alive

Discipline Defined: consistency of action, consistency with values, consistency with long term goals, consistency with performance standards, consistency of method, consistency over time.

Self Discipline: Having the inner will to do whatever it takes to create a great outcome, no matter how difficult.

Level 5 Leadership:

    • Deflect Attention
    • Maintain a Low Profile
    • Lead with Inspiring Standards

Chapter 3 – Fanatical Discipline: 20 Mile March

Freely chosen, discipline is absolute freedom.” Ron Serino

This chapter introduces the 20 Mile March, one of the central analogies of the book.  Essentially, this is the idea that a slow and steady pass permits a person to accomplish a lot by disciplining themselves to accomplish a small strategic amount each and every day regardless of the circumstances.

Elements of a Good 20 Mile March:

    • Performance Markers – lower bounds of acceptable achievement
    • Self Imposed Restraints – upper bounds of acceptable achievement
    • Tailored to the Enterprise – targeted to the mission
    • Lies WithinYour Control to Achieve – Not dependent on luck
    • Goldilocks Timeframe – not to short or too long… but just right
    • Self Imposed – not externally imposed or copied from another
    • Achieved with Consistency – Good intentions count for nothing

The 10Xer’s mantra for missing a 20 Mile March: “There is no excuse, and it is up to us to correct for our failures, period.”

Why 20 Mile Marchers Win:

    • It builds confidence in the ability to perform well in adverse circumstances
    • It reduces the likelihood of catastrophe when hit by turbulence
    • It helps exert self control in an out of control environment

Great Quote: “We are ultimately responsible for improving performance. We need blame circumstance, we never blame environment.”

Beat the Odds – Arizona Education Study:

    • Beat the Odds Schools Belief 1: Don’t blame students for not learning. Have the strength to take responsibility.
    • Beat the Odds Schools Belief 2: Don’t think the solution is “out there”. If students aren’t learning, the school needs to change.
    • Beat the Odds Schools Belief 3: Don’t let any students lag behind. If every student in every classroom isn’t learning, the school isn’t doing its job.

Chapter 4: Empirical Creativity – Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs

Stay One Fad Behind: The CEO of the 10X company Stryker, John Brown, lived by the mantra that it is best to be just “one fad behind.” Innovation is overrated, stealing and replicating what works is the key to long term systematic success.

Threshold Innovation: You have to be able to innovate to a certain extent.  However, over innovation will prevent success.  It is better to replicate the innovators after proven successful.

Linking the Framework: “Innovation without discipline leads to disaster.”

Bullets then Cannonballs: Collins introduces another anchoring analogy at this point, drawing on naval warfare tactics.  he explains that empirical creativity is based on a disciplined approach to determining what works.  Essentially, organizations must take small risks (bullets) to determine what works.  Once they find a series of successful targets, they can replicate with larger aspects of the organization (cannonballs). “After the cannonball hits, you continue 20 Mile Marching to make the most of your big success.”

Bullets: Low cost, low risk, low distraction

Cannonballs: High cost but low risk if following effective bullets

Chapter 5: Productive Paranoia – Leading Above the Death Line

This chapter begins with the incredible story of David Breashears and his quest to document the climbing of Mount Everest with an IMAX film.  This story has many overlying similarities with the Amundsen story of the South Pole expedition. Cllins uses this story to introduce several key aspects of the concept of Productive Paranoia.  The chapter title, Leading Above the Death Line refers to the planning and practice required to succeed at high altitude at the task Breashears undertook.

Three Core Practices of Productive Paranoia:

    1. Build reserves and buffers to prepare for unexpected events before they happen
    2. Understand bound risk and manage time based risk
    3. Zoom in the zoom out, remaining hyper-vigilant to sense changing conditions and responding effectively

Thinking First: Great leaders think first, event when they need to think fast!

Prioritizing the Essentials: Nothing else matters until we get this done, and done right.

Variable Value of Time: “Not all time in life is equal. Life serves up some moments that count much more than other moments

Chapter 6: SMaC (Simple, Methodical and Consistent)

SMaC Recipe: a set of durable operating practices that create a replicable and consistent success formula.  They must be specific, methodical and consistent. These are not a strategy, culture, core set of values or tactics.  The are a simple list of things you do… Consistently!

Chapter 7: Return on Luck

Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, wold you capture it? Or let it slip?” Marshall Bruce Mathers III, “Lose Yourself”

This chapter is a fascinating and empirical look at the impact of luck on a wide range of organizations.  The essential findings are that all organizations experience luck (both good and bad) with similar frequency. The difference between 10Xers and the rest are how they respond to luck.  Basically, those who are prepared for luck and can capitalize on it when good and ride it out when bad, succeed.

The chapter ends with a great summary of the entire book on pages 174 and 175.

Epilogue: Great by Choice

One should… Be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Greatness is not primarily a matter of circumstance, greatness is first and foremost a matter of conscious choice and discipline.”

“Good research advances understandingly never provides the ultimate; we always have more to learn.”

“We are free to choose, free to become great by choice.”

1 Response to Great by Choice (by: Jim Collins)

  1. Esther Gitonga says:

    Nice one!We all need to be great by choice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s