A review of the new Jim Collins book “Great By Choice”

I admit it. I’m a total Jim Collins fanboy.

Ever since my friend Paul Salazar first introduced me to the book Built to Last back in 2002, I’ve been a willing member of the cult of Jim Collins. During my time at Red Hat, we took some of the ideas from Built to Last as inspiration for the process we used to uncover the Red Hat values. Then we later employed many of the principles from Collins’ next book Good to Great as we further developed the Red Hat positioning, brand, and culture.

Check out this picture of my copies of Built to Last and Good to Great, with little Red Hat Shadowman stickies marking the key sections I refer to the most. (I’m such a nerd.)

While many of the Big Concepts (TM) expressed in these books may initially seem a bit cheesy and Overly Branded (TM), I’ve come to love and occasionally use some of the terms like BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals), the Tyranny of the OR, Level 5 Leadership, and my longtime favorite The Hedgehog Concept. Why?

Because they are just so damn useful. They make the incredibly complex mechanics behind successful and not-so-successful organizations and leaders simple and easy for anyone to understand. They are accessible ideas and you don’t have to be a former management consultant with an MBA from Harvard in order to understand how to apply these principles to your own organization.

I’d go so far as to say that over the past fifteen years, no one has done more than Jim Collins to democratize the process of creating a great organization.

So when I found out that Jim Collins had a new book coming out, his first since the rather dark and depressing (but no less useful) How the Mighty Fall in 2009, and that he’d been working on this new book with his co-author Morten Hansen for the last nine years, I was ready for my next fix.

I finished the new book, entitled Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck–Why Some Thrive Despite Them All a few nights ago, and here are my thoughts.

This book comes from the same general neighborhood Collins explores in his previous books (I’d describe this neighborhood as “what makes some companies awesome and others… not so much”), but instead of simply rehashing the same principles, this book explores a particularly timely subject. From Chapter 1, here’s how Collins and Hansen set up the premise:

“Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not? When buffeted by tumultuous events, when hit by big, fast-moving forces that we can neither predict nor control, what distinguishes those who perform exceptionally well from those who underperform or worse?”

In other words, what common characteristics are found in companies that thrive when the going gets wacky? (Times like, for instance… right now.)

In this book Collins and Hansen clearly did an immense amount of research to answer this question. In fact, as with Built to Last and Good to Great, the appendixes at the end “showing the math” for how they reached their conclusions take a third or more of the book.

Their research led to a set of companies that they refer to as the “10x” cases because, during the study period, these companies outperformed the rest of their industry by 10 times or more. After looking at over 20,000 companies, the final organizations that made the cut were Amgen, Biomet, Intel, Microsoft, Progressive Insurance, Southwest Airlines, and Stryker.

Now you may look at this list, as I did, and say to yourself, “Okay, I get Southwest Airlines and Progressive Insurance… but Microsoft????”

Well, as it turns out, the period they were studying wasn’t up until the present day. Because this research began nine years ago, they were studying the companies from 1965 (or their founding date if it was later) until 2002. So in that context, the choice of Microsoft makes a lot more sense. In 2002, Microsoft was still firing on all cylinders (believe me, I remember).

I won’t spoil the whole book for you, but Great by Choice has an entirely new set of Big Concepts (TM) that will help you understand the characteristics that set these companies apart from their peers. This time around, we are introduced to:

The 20 Mile March: Consistent execution without overreaching in good times or underachieving in bad times.
Firing Bullets, Then Cannonballs: Testing concepts in small ways and then making adjustments rather than placing big, unproven bets (basically akin to the open source principles of release early, release often and failing fast). But then placing big bets when you have figured out exactly where to aim.
Leading above the Death Line: Learning how to effectively manage risk so that the risks your organization take never put it in mortal danger.
Return on Luck: My favorite quote from the book perfectly articulates the concept: “The critical question is not whether you’ll have luck, but what you do with the luck that you get.”

Many of these concepts come with an awesome allegorical story to illustrate them. That’s the great thing about a Jim Collins book: you can’t always tell whether you are reading a business book or an adventure book. In this case Collins (who is also an avid rock climber himself) shares tales from an ill-fated Everest expedition, the race for the South Pole, and a near death climbing experience in Alaska interspersed with specific stories from the businesses he is profiling.

Overall assessment: The book is a fitting companion to Built to Last, Good to Great, and How the Mighty Fall. Simple, accessible, easy to digest, and with some very actionable key concepts that you can immediately put to use. And, unless you read all of the research data at the end, you’ll find it to be a quick read that you can likely finish on a plane trip or in an afternoon.

So go on, pick up a copy and let me know if you agree.

If you found this post helpful…

Consider taking a look at my new book The Ad-Free Brand (not an advertisement, mind you, just a friendly suggestion:). It has some nice tips for how to build a great organization without the help of… you guessed it… advertising!

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About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.


34 thoughts on “A review of the new Jim Collins book “Great By Choice”

  1. Thanks! I’m always looking for inspiring, professional reading. I’ll check it out! =)

    Posted by Amber | October 27, 2011, 1:08 pm
  2. Hey, as long as you’re not a fanboy of “The Secret” (I just did a whole post about my disdain for that piece of poop), then I’m on board…though I’m sure this book will be relegated to the status of “must-read” corporate culture, which means we’ll get some good catch phrases out of it.

    Since I’m now a self-employed freelance writer, I think I’ll pick this up myself — I’ll admit it feels nice not being “ordered” to read it by my superiors!

    Great review…

    Posted by Mikalee Byerman | October 27, 2011, 1:08 pm
  3. Thanks for sharing, i will definitely try it out.. :-D

    Posted by abichica | October 27, 2011, 1:33 pm
  4. I appreciate this entry! I am writing about similar topics (not books but the topics of the ones presented) in my own blogs. I will certainly “follow” this! Thanks and have an excellent day!

    James Pradke, Elite Life Coach and Business Consultant, Hourglass Coaching and Consulting

    Posted by jgpradke | October 27, 2011, 2:06 pm
  5. He has some interesting concepts. Good write-up about the book!

    Posted by I Made You A Mixtape | October 27, 2011, 3:53 pm
  6. All of his books are mandatory reading for my company. Absolutely love him — he makes it very easy to put yourself in check on a regular basis. Didn’t know he had a new one out…will definitely be looking into it. Thanks so much for the post!

    Posted by Amy Brueggemann | October 27, 2011, 4:07 pm
  7. Enjoyed “Good to Great” and will check this one out. Thanks for the review.

    Posted by Sisterhood of the Traveling Military Pants | October 27, 2011, 4:16 pm
  8. I read “Good to Great” a couple times a year now. It has been one of the most influential books I use when I’m trying to make decisions. I’m not a business owner but there’s still a lot of great information on how to be an effective leader. I didn’t know he had a new book out so I’ll have to check it out. I’ve never recommended any other book other than “Good to Great” to people so I’m excited to see how this one is. Thanks for the great review.

    Posted by TechChucker | October 27, 2011, 6:18 pm
  9. I haven’t read this book (and I still might not), but I appreciate the Firing Bullets, Then Cannonballs strategy. I’ve been in the metaphorical cannon a couple times, and I would have liked the generals maybe to skirmish before committing to a full pitched battle. I apologize for the clumsy use of the war metaphors; I’m more comfortable with lame sports comparisons.

    Posted by dysfunctional literacy | October 27, 2011, 6:47 pm
  10. I think I got Jim Collins confused with Tom Collins…great review! I might check it out.

    Posted by natasiarose | October 27, 2011, 8:49 pm
  11. I have this book sitting on my desk just waiting for me to read it! Your review is nothing but positive, so I know that I will be reading this weekend!

    Posted by Deborah Hutti | October 27, 2011, 9:03 pm
  12. Fantastic review! This will have to go my read-to-do list. Congrats on the freshly pressed.
    Thank you. ♥ Ezzy ;)

    Posted by Ezzy | October 27, 2011, 10:18 pm
  13. I’ll have to add this to my reading list! thanks for the review. well done and i look forward to checking out the book for myself.

    Posted by Eva McCane | October 27, 2011, 11:16 pm
  14. Introduced to Jim Collins “Good to Great” by a lecturer in a Leadership and Change class and loved it. Also became somewhat of a ‘fanboy’ as I use audio and video clips from his web site to emphasise points in meetings. He’s good in front of a crowd too…
    Good review – I’ll pickup a copy of this one at my next trip to the bookstore.

    Posted by nastylittletruths | October 27, 2011, 11:34 pm
  15. Is this essentially a very economic based book? It seems like a piece that would be presented in a college atmosphere to show students one of many perspectives on how one attains financial success in the business world. Yet, I could be wrong since I was just exposed to this book after reading your review. Is it focused on advising the reader on how to be successful or more on informing the reader and answering the question, “How do they do it?”

    Thank you for your review!

    If it is okay with you, I would like to mention my own blog that I just started and share the link with your readers. It’s called Logic Meets Reason and it would be great if you and your readers could comment, subscribe, and take a look at the pieces I have posted! Here is the link:

    Posted by Logic Meets Reason | October 28, 2011, 12:25 am
  16. Thanks Chris, that was a good review. I’m thinking, however, that it didn’t have the same punch as ‘Good to Great’ had. But did it come close?

    Posted by jseaford | October 28, 2011, 1:13 am
  17. Thanks for that. I’ll have a look at it.

    Posted by gaycarboys | October 28, 2011, 2:00 am
  18. A good book. I want to read it.

    Posted by Brain | October 28, 2011, 2:04 am
  19. I loved Jim Collins book, “Selling the wheel”. It was an excellent read on salesmanship and keeping up with the business evolutionary process. I think I’ll go for this new book.

    Posted by upwardliving | October 28, 2011, 2:50 am
  20. I have a copy of Good to Great on my shelf and never read it yet, because I didn’t know how it would read, but now I will…Thanks!

    Posted by stereotypeslie | October 28, 2011, 7:30 am
  21. Great report, thanks for taking the time to share it. Particularly like – Return on Luck: My favorite quote from the book perfectly articulates the concept: “The critical question is not whether you’ll have luck, but what you do with the luck that you get.” I guess this does not just relate to luck, but also circumstances, how quickly can you react to circumstances when they come your way to take full advantage of them.

    Be interesting to see how Jim ranks in the Thinkers50 list this year.

    Posted by newbon | October 28, 2011, 7:52 am
  22. It is really an out of turn review.

    Posted by stockresearch52 | October 28, 2011, 8:41 am
  23. Every time I visit my parents, I see Good to Great sitting on my dad’s shelf, and I think, hey I should read that sometime. Now I definitely need to, and I can surprise my dad with a copy of his newest book. Thanks!

    Posted by Jenina | October 28, 2011, 8:57 am
  24. very nice book, wish to purchase …

    Posted by Trademark | October 28, 2011, 10:06 pm
  25. Great piece. The book sounds interesting. Will check it out.

    Posted by bookblog76 | October 28, 2011, 11:16 pm
  26. It’s great books. is it available in kindle ebook.

    Posted by ellimacha | October 30, 2011, 8:26 pm
  27. What happened to the companies in GOOD to (NOT SO) GREAT in 2008?

    Posted by Mirza Galib | November 11, 2011, 5:16 pm
  28. Jim Collins rose to “Favorite Author” status for me with Good to Great. The “Hedge Hog Principle” it hit me like a ton of bricks and quite literally changed the direction of my career. If you’ll allow me to comment here on the applicability Level 5 Leadership to the current political “debate” in Washington (i.e., failure of the Super Committee to deliver revenue increases and spending cuts).

    From Good to Great, we know that there are several qualities that make a Level 5 Leader. But the one that seems appropriate today, given the current practice inside the beltway of touting your own contributions and blaming failure on your opponents, the economy, bad luck and even the weather is:

    “When things do not go well Level 5 Leaders take responsibility for the failures and never blame other people, external factors, or bad luck. When they do go well they attribute success of their companies to external factors, their team or luck.” (Quote taken from Level 5 Leadership, © Jon Jenkins and Gerrit Visser which can be found at


    Posted by jack15324 | November 22, 2011, 8:46 am


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