Blogger’s note: This week, another installment in my Paradox of the Week* series of posts.


 

For those of you familiar with my blog, you know that in the past I have not been all that complimentary of texts penned by best-selling management advice guru Jim Collins. These would include Built to Last (1994) and Good to Great (2001), both of which are considered to be among the most popular business books ever written.[1]

The problem with these two texts—as is the problem with all management advice books, in my experience[2]—is that the author (in this case, Collins) frequently and repeatedly contradicts himself. Indeed, one of my favorite examples of this phenomena is from Collins himself. In both Good to Great and Built to Last, for instance, he insists his text is not a “business book”…even though both were in fact published by HarperBusiness.[3]

Unfortunately, one of his more recent offerings (published in 2009) is really no different. It too offers contradictory advice, and makes paradoxical assertions. And that text is:

How the Mighty Fall.

For example:

  • On page 25, Collins assures those CEOs and business owners who are perhaps struggling that “Just because you have made mistakes and fallen into decline does not seal your fate.” This is a perhaps welcome note of optimism given the book’s title. However, back on page 8 he doesn’t sound quite so cheerful: “Anyone can fall and most eventually do [my emphasis].”
  • On page 95, Collins writes: “Our research across multiple studies…shows a distinct negative correlation between building great companies and going outside for a CEO.” In other words, better to hire from within to fill that top spot. However, only 7 pages earlier Collins can also be found describing the successful turnaround of IBM in the 1990s. This was a transformation thought by many—including Collins—to have been orchestrated by Louis Gerstner, Jr., the CEO brought in by IBM from RJR Nabisco.
  • But let’s return to the text’s main thesis. In the book’s preface, Collins writes:

“The aim of this piece is to offer research-grounded perspective of how decline can happen, even to those who appear invincible, so that leaders might have a better chance of avoiding their tragic fate” (p. xiv).

So the purpose of this text truly seems to be to helping “the mighty” avoid “the fall,” so to speak. Nevertheless, on page 111 Collins can also be found arguing:

“Not all companies deserve to last. Perhaps society is better off getting rid of organizations that have fallen from great to terrible rather than continuing to let them inflict their massive inadequacies on their stakeholders.”

So how are you supposed to know if your organization doesn’t “deserve to last”?

And if “society is better off” without your company…well, why bother reading—much less purchasing—Collins’ book in the first place..?

 

See you next week.

 


*An instance in which a business or management “expert” contradicts him- or herself, or otherwise offers paradoxical advice. Often this is done without any apparent awareness on the part of the advice-giver. For more examples of this all-too-frequent phenomena, click here. For an explanation as to why this happens so often, please see my post: Why you can throw out that management advice book (Parts 1, 2, & 3).

 

Endnotes

[1] The Top 50 Best Selling Management Books of All Time. http://www.topmanagementdegrees.com/management-books/. “12 Business books every person must read” by Mike Templeton. Forbes (online), Nov. 10, 2015. http://www.forbes.com/sites/miketempleman/2015/11/10/12-books-every-business-person-must-read/#55ff5ad23bca; “Was ‘Built to Last’ Built to Last?” by Jennifer Reingold and Ryan Underwood. Fast Company (online), Oct. 1, 2004. https://www.fastcompany.com/50992/was-built-last-built-last. All retrieved Dec. 1, 2016.

[2] For more on this, check out my posts “Why you can throw out that management advice book (Parts 1,2&3)”

[3] In the preface to Built to Last, Collins writes “At it’s deepest level this is not a business book” (p. xiv). And in Good to Great, “This might come as a surprise, but I don’t primarily think of my work as about the study of business, nor do I see this fundamentally as a business book” (p. 15 ).