book review

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When good companies go bad


A few weeks ago I finished the new Jim Collins book How the Mighty Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In. If you read this blog much, you’re probably sick of me prattling on about how much I love Jim Collins’ work (here, here, and here). Over the years at Red Hat, we’ve based many projects related to the values, mission, and other corporate-level structural thinking on ideas we got from him.

mightyfallcollinsWell, it’s been almost eight years since Collins wrote his last full-length book, Good to Great (which ranked number one on my list of the top ten books behind Dark Matter Matters). How the Mighty Fall is a short book, and in it, Collins is clearly a bit on the defensive about his previous work. The issue? In the economic meltdown last year, some of his Built to Last companies didn’t last, and some of his Good to Great companies are back to good… or gone.

Collins explains it this way:

…the principles in Good to Great were derived primarily from studying specific periods in history when the good-to-great companies showed a substantial transformation into an era of superior performance that lasted fifteen years. The research did not attempt to predict which companies would remain great after their fifteen-year run. Indeed, as this work shows, even the mightiest of companies can self-destruct.

…I’ve come to see institutional decline like a staged disease: harder to detect but easier to cure in the earlier stages, easier to detect but harder to cure in the later stages. An institution can look strong on the outside but already be sick in the inside, dangerously on the cusp of a precipitous fall.

So this book is Collins’ attempt to discover why exactly some very good companies went oh so very bad. If Good to Great was Star Wars, this book is The Empire Strikes Back— a long, hard look into the dark side (even the cover is black).

Collins did extensive research using an interesting approach. He studied these companies, not as history has judged them, but based on what the company was saying, what the press was saying, what financial analysts were saying during the time period being studied– before we knew the outcome. And all of the research was done in historical order, almost like he was following the companies through time.

The results of the research play out like a Greek tragedy. He identified 5 stages of decline in the companies that had gone from great to… not so great:

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