Monday, September 19, 2011

Review: How The Mighty Fall – Jim Collins

I am a big fan of the work that Jim Collins and his colleagues have done over an extended period up until now. This more recent work, 'How the Mighty Fall' (HTMF), is an extension of what was delivered in their previous work 'Good to Great' (GTG), which itself was an extension of the even earlier work 'Built to Last' (BTL). In reviewing HTMF I am torn between awarding it the extreme rating at either end of the Books with Balls scale, therefore with brazen cheek I am going to award it both 'Basketballs' and 'No Balls' at the same time. I will begin with the negative take on the book.

Cover image thanks to
No Balls – As I mentioned earlier HTMF is a further extension on previous research published by Collins. Collins is a self titled 'student of companies' seeking to truly understand what makes them tick. BTL began by asking the question for the reader 'why is it that some companies have been around for such extended periods?' Post this GTG extended the analysis by asking 'what is the difference between a good company (that still may be a household name), and a truly great one?' Now lately the question of HTMF was 'why is it that the seemingly infallible company can actually fail?'

This was a piece of research begun prior to 2008 global economic struggles, yet by the time it was published (in 2008) actually spoke with seeming clarity on the state of the world economy at the time. My criticism of HTMF is simple, having read both BTL and GTG previously I am unsure of what is actually different in the conclusions drawn between books.

Collins could no doubt point to extensive extra research that identifies clearly that the conclusions drawn in HTMF are very much their own. However Collins' works great marketable strength is also its great weakness. What Collins is able to effectively do is communicate clearly the conclusions of extensive and detailed academic research to an audience not taken to reading long journal articles, or pouring over endless statistical analysis. Though Collins never can be accused of 'dumbing down' his work, eventually while reading HTMF I felt as though I had read it all before and the conclusions were not only obvious but very familiar.

Based upon this I cast my mind back to the previous two works, stacked them up against HTMF and asked the question, which of them is the most useful? For mine it clearly is GTG for two reasons. Firstly it, like BTL, has a positive disposition that HTMF does not. GTG is a presentation of evidence backed 'should do' behaviours that lead to positive results. In terms of leading a reader on a journey to betterment telling them what they should do is in my opinion more effective than only telling them what they should not do.

Secondly, I believe it has far greater application than just Collins area of research companies. The research presented in all books has wider application yet the method of presentation in GTG makes it easier to apply to other organisations, and critically for individuals. Its promotion of what Collins calls 'Level 5' leadership is an excellent read for application in more facets of life than just business.

To conclude in this section if you had to select just one of Collins works to read, go with GTG.

Basketballs – That all being said, if circumstance arose whereupon you were thrust with the opportunity to read HTMF without that which to read GTG, you will not be disappointed. HTMF presents in clear prose and example what the research believe to be the five cascading stages in decline for a company. At each stage the contention made is fully explored along multiple lines and backed up with choice data from the academic research. You will read through this book and be amazed by its depth yet simplicity of outcomes.

Although the basis for each of the books questions is the performance of companies, the answers are never a reflection on company behaviour or corporate decision making. As with all their work, Collins and his team allow their research to guide, and as always it is more a comment on human behaviour. What should shock you is just how obvious the conclusions are, in hindsight.

There is great benefit to be obtained through reading HTMF and entering into self-reflection based on Collins' principles. While they may not fully suit every situation in our minds at the very least they should encourage thought, discussion and hopefully growth both corporately and personally. 

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