Thursday, May 28, 2009

Too good, too great

Jim Collins is one scary dude. The best-selling author of 'Good to Great' and 'Built to Last' -- inspiring stories of successful corporations -- and also more recently about corporations that eventually fail ('How the Mighty Fall'), keeps a precise tally (according to the New York Times) of how much time he spends in each kind of activity. Here are the numbers:

  • Creative 53%
  • Teaching 28%
  • Other 19%
I was surprised to learn that he is still married to his wife of many years. But then again, both are Stanford alums as well as extreme outdoors freaks -- long distance running, rock climbing, and so on. It's not a huge field from which to find life partners.
Four days after his first date with Joanne Ernst in the spring of 1980 — an eight-mile run when both were students at Stanford — they were engaged, and married later that year.
I doubt they have children: I don't think children would fit into either the 'Creative 53%' of the 'Other 19%'. Have I scared you enough, yet? Okay, how about,
These aren’t ballpark guesstimates. Mr. Collins, who is 51, keeps a stopwatch with three separate timers in his pocket at all times, stopping and starting them as he switches activities. Then he regularly logs the times into a spreadsheet.
I guess this is a classic example of how it is possible to remain productive and functional even if one is afflicted with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder -- and turn rich too: Collins is worth millions, according to the article. So wealthy, that he chooses to turn down speaking engagements that pay him $65,000 a pop. The guy even maps how he sleeps:
He figures that he needs to get 70 to 75 hours of sleep every 10 days, and once went to a sleep lab to learn more about his own patterns. Now — surprise, surprise — he logs his time spent on a pillow, naps included, and monitors a rolling average.
“If I start falling below that,” he says, pointing to the short list on his whiteboard, “I can still teach and do ‘other,’ but I can’t create.”
But I like his style:
Companies also ask him to consult. But he mostly declines, agreeing only if the company intrigues him and if its executives come to Boulder to meet him. Over two half-day sessions, for $60,000, he will ask pointed questions and provide very few answers.

“I am completely Socratic,” he said, “and I challenge and push; they come up with their own answers. I couldn’t come up with people’s answers.”
If companies would agree to pay me to ask them questions but not provide any solutions, I'd be the happiest man. But Collins has a unique mind:
“Jim is a very interesting combination of things,” said Mr. Porras, his co-author on “Built to Last” who taught Mr. Collins many of the research techniques he uses today. “He’s amazingly creative, amazingly disciplined, amazingly thorough. He has strong opinions about things, but after a lot of arguments, he certainly would change his mind. A lot of people who have strong opinions never really let go of them.”
But I'd never make one of his research assistants: he needs extremely anally-retentive individuals:
For each book, he hires a research team of university students, up to a dozen at a time, to help him during long summers of work. He is picky about whom he hires, typically from Stanford and the University of Colorado. They’re not always business students; they might be studying law or engineering or biochemistry.

He prefers to learn as much as he can about them before he meets them. “Because if I meet them, I may like them, and then all the assessment of the person is going to be filtered by the fact that I like them, and what I really want to see is the quality of their work,” he says.

So he will look at their transcripts. “If they even have a small glitch in their academic record over the last year, they don’t really get considered,” he says. “I need people who have that just weird need to get everything right.”

He gives the candidates a list of different academic activities, including field work and lab work, and makes them rank the activities in order of preference, to give him a clear idea of their interests.

If they clear other hurdles, he will finally meet them in person. He’s looking for four intangibles: smart, curious, willing to death-march (“there has to be something in their background that indicates that they just will die before they would fail to complete something to perfection”) and some spark of irreverence (“because it’s in that fertile conversation of disagreement where the best ideas come, or at least the best ideas get tested”).

“So I look for somebody who on the one hand was an Eagle Scout, because that’s death-marching,” he explained. “And, on the other hand, somebody who took time off to travel to 14 third-world countries on no money.” One of his researchers, an M.B.A. student, had studied medieval literature at Princeton and served in the Marines.
Perhaps Collins studies corporations that are a lot like him, constantly striving for the right formula for success, establishing benchmarks, gathering data, sticking to a strategy, relentless in their focus. But there are probably other corporations -- of the kind that Tom Peters writes about -- that are also successful.

Come to think of it, Tom Peters and Jim Collins are two very different sort of business gurus: both gradauted from Stanford but their personalities are wildly different. Where Peters is colorful and bombastic, Collins is autstere and monk-like. The sort of corporations that Peters champions are different from those that Collins does; I imagine each sort of 'succesful' corporation mirrors the personality of the business guru who loves and praises it.

I am more than a little troubled that among the biggest fans of 'Good to Great' -- GTG to its legions of fans -- are religious leaders in the US. As if there isn't enough pabulum (e.g., 'All I need to know I learned in kindergarten') around to push religion on a hapless populace.
When in 2001 the Rev. Stuart Ritter was assigned as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Rockaway, N.J., the 425-member congregation had been through a series of pastors in a short time. Morale was low. As he worked to re-energize the church, he discovered Good to Great and embraced it.

"When you're dealing with an organization that traces its roots back 2,000 years, we don't need a new vision," Ritter says. "We need a way to transform what we're doing to move out of the trap of mediocrity."

The church, for instance, started focusing on First Who— putting the right church officers in the positions best suited for them. Ritter also pushed for a hedgehog concept. "I'd ask, 'What do you believe you as a church can do better than anybody else?' " Ritter says.

The question is sometimes met with consternation. "The sense of excelling, which implies being better than someone else, seems foreign to the mindset of the church," he says. But today, he believes, the church is more vibrant and has a sense of purpose — though unlike with companies, there's no way to measure and prove a church's success.
According to the same USA Today news story, here's the essence of the book's message:
Level 5 leadership: Transformations start when a company finds a CEO who is humble but iron-willed, and who is ambitious for the company, not necessarily for himself or herself.

First who, then what: It's more important to get the right people on the team than to determine what the organization will do. Collins calls this getting the right people on the bus.

Confront the brutal facts, yet never lose faith: Organizations have to embrace reality, but they must believe they will prevail.

The hedgehog concept: Figure out the one thing you can do best, and put all your energy behind it.

A culture of discipline: Great organizations build a strong culture that guides every member's actions.

Technology accelerators: Once everything else is in place, technology can act like booster rockets.

The flywheel: Keep pushing in the same direction, building momentum with every action and decision.
So, this is rocket science? Oh, man ... And no, I haven't read the book. So ...

(Another critique of the book from Business Pundit.) Business Pundit provides this quote from a Wharton review of the book:
Collins asks an interesting question. Unhappily, the methodology he used to formulate an answer is questionable and the answer is almost disappointing in its simplicity: Great companies become great by staying focused: focused on their products, their customers and their businesses. They aspire to higher levels of excellence, are never content to become complacent and are passionate about their products. They have leadership that is not ego-driven, and have organizational cultures that embrace constant change. That's the book.
I will say this, though: while the book contributes nothing that is unknown to anybody who has either put in a few years in business or read widely in the field, it probably doesn't hurt to encapsulate it all within a book's covers. Frankly, I don't believe business books do any more than serve an inspirational purpose. Few, if any, business books can give the precise formula for anyone to succeed in their specific context. At best, it makes them feel a little more informed, a little more confident, and keeps the alert to things going on around them. And if they have a strong feelgood factor or sense of religious mission, they will fly off the shelves, no matter what.

Come to think of it, even a book like 'The Surrendered Wife" by Laura Doyle based on absolutely no scientific research and just one woman's opinion made the author very rich (and helped her lose weight too, it appears from her picture, compared to how she looked about 5 or 6 years ago). An even more successful book, "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" was also based on the opinions of one man (with a fake PhD) and no scientific evidence at all.

Now I'm not comparing Jim Collins with any of these unworthies -- it's just that there are many factors that determine the success of a book, and maybe, just maybe, Collins hit upon the right formula that persuades people to buy books, whether or not the book has anything new to offer.

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