Collins, Jim and Hansen, Morten T. (2011). Great by Choice. New York: Harper Collins.
I don’t, as a rule, like recipe books unless they deal with food… and this book is no exception. The word “recipe” first appears on page 128 and is used repeatedly in the last 50 pages of the book. Of the 304 pages, at least 120 are dedicated to references, an index, “frequently asked questions” and “research foundations”.
After the first ten pages, I had enough. But I laboured through until the end, having promised to deliver a book review by the New Year. When I am given homework, I do it!
So, what is this book about? Great by Choice is a comparison of 7 companies that succeeded (what Jim Collins called “10xers”) and 7 “comparison” companies that didn’t, based on three criteria: the winners sustained 15 years of spectacular results relative to the stock market and the industry in general; these results were achieved in spite of a turbulent environment (for example 9/11); and finally, the rise to greatness is closely associated to the businesses’ vulnerability because of their size or age. The authors write having sifted through documents of 20,400 companies to identify the winners and the losers. Good empirical research, in short.
And what are the ingredients in this so-called “recipe” for greatness? Discipline with a fair dosage of creativity; scaled innovation; good decisions (and not necessarily fast ones); stability; paranoia; and yes, luck. At the centre, sits what the authors call “level 5 ambition”… and you have to have read Collins’ other best-sellers to know what that means.
The stories and anecdotes are numerous and interesting, from the adventures of Roald Amundsen who first reached the South Pole to Bill Gates’s paranoid memos to his staff. They talk of performance, intelligence and friendship, necessary ingredients to attain success, be it personal or company-wide.
I did not like the book but it doesn’t mean it’s not a good one. If as a manager you tend to be inspired by empirical research summarized in very digestible language, with clear illustrations and extensive references, then go for it. You’ll be well-served if you invest a few hours to see how others have beaten the odds because they were strategic, disciplined and creative (as well as lucky and possessed of good timing).
As for me, I have left the book on a public bench for someone else to pick up.
 Apart from being Executive Director of l’Orchestre symphonique de Trois-Rivières and Chair of the Board of Orchestras Canada, Thérèse Boutin is a Ph.D. student in Business Administration at the Université de Sherbrooke.