I had just finished presenting my research to a set of Internet executives gathered at a conference, when a hand shot up. “Will your findings continue to apply in the new economy? Don’t we need to throw out all the old ideas and start from scratch?” It’s a legitimate question, as we do live in a time of dramatic change, and it comes up so often that I’d like to dispense with it right up front, before heading into the meat of the book.
Yes, the world is changing, and will continue to do so. But that does not mean we should stop the search for timeless principles. Think of it this way: While the practices of engineering continually evolve and change, the laws of physics remain relatively fixed.
I like to think of our work as a search for timeless principles—the enduring physics of great organizations—that will remain true and relevant no matter how the world changes around us. Yes, the specific application will change (the engineering), but certain immutable laws of organized human performance (the physics) will endure.
The truth is, there’s nothing new about being in a new economy. Those who faced the invention of electricity, the telephone, the automobile, the radio, or the transistor—did they feel it was any less of a new economy than we feel today? And in each rendition of the new economy, the best leaders have adhered to certain basic principles, with rigor and discipline.
Some people will point out that the scale and pace of change is greater today than anytime in the past. Perhaps. Even so, some of the companies in our good-to-great study faced rates of change that rival anything in the new economy.
For example, during the early 1980s, the banking industry was completely transformed in about three years, as the full weight of deregulation came crashing down.
It was certainly a new economy for the banking industry! Yet Wells Fargo applied every single finding in this book to produce great results, right smack in the middle of the fast-paced change triggered by deregulation.
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 as fundamentally a business book. Rather, I see my work as being about discovering what creates enduring great organizations of any type.
I’m curious to understand the fundamental differences between great and good, between excellent and mediocre. I just happen to use corporations as a means of getting inside the black box.
I do this because publicly traded corporations, unlike other types of organizations, have two huge advantages for research: a widely agreed upon definition of results (so we can rigorously select a study set) and a plethora of easily accessible data.
That good is the enemy of great is not just a business problem. It is a human problem. If we have cracked the code on the question of good to great, we should have something of value to any type of organization.
Good schools might become great schools. Good newspapers might become great newspapers. Good churches might become great churches. Good government agencies might become great agencies. And good companies might become great companies.
So, I invite you to join me on an intellectual adventure to discover what it takes to turn good into great. I also encourage you to question and challenge what you learn. As one of my favorite professors once said, “The best students are those who never quite believe their professors.”
True enough. But he also said, “One ought not to reject the data merely because one does not like what the data implies.” I offer everything herein for your thoughtful consideration, not blind acceptance. You’re the judge and jury. Let the evidence speak.
Excerpt From: Jim Collins. “Good to Great.”