It’s been a while now since somebody pointed out to me that most of the companies featured in Jim Collins’ 2001 book Good to Great have since fallen back down from Great to mediocre, struggling, or failed. His greats include Fannie Mae, a now-famous disaster; Gillette, which no longer exists as an independent company; Circuit City, which failed a couple of years ago; … and some others that are just not great anymore.
So was Collins wrong? No, it’s a good book, well researched, full of wisdom. But it can’t be taken literally. It’s stories, not fact. It’s about some specific companies, in their specific situations. You can’t just translate some other situation into your own, without digesting.
I’ve been thinking about this since I read Dan McCarthy’s Great Leadership: Management Best Practices or Just an Illusion? post on this topic from a week or so ago. He lists several successful and widely respected management books that cite examples that didn’t last. Not just Jim Collins’ book, but what he calls a genre, business success studies, including In Search of Excellence, Good to Great mentioned above, Breakthrough Company, What Really Works, Stall Points, and others. He cites a study by Deloitte called A Random Search for Excellence, in which researchers report that companies’ sustained high performance may simply be luck.
I don’t think you can take management out of context and make generalizations easily. I agree with McCarthy that these studies are valuable as stories, almost like fables, that give you useful ideas. Study examples, fit them into a framework, and draw conclusions. These stories are valuable as food for thought, but dangerous when they become crystallized and inflexible. One company’s great management is another company’s fatal flaw. Management is more art than science.