Built to Last by Jim Collins has sold millions since its publication in 1997 but 15 years on is it working and is anyone still listening?
The driver behind Jim Collins and Jerry Porras research was to find the magic ingredients that made some companies enduringly successful. In doing so he introduced a number of concepts which are worth revisiting:
Be Clock Builders not Time-Tellers
The principle here is that leadership is not about the “cult of I” but about building the right culture within the business. Great leaders are humble because they are subservient to the vision; they don’t want to be great, they want to build a great company. They spend a lot of time on succession management and personal growth within the business because they believe in the mission and want it to continue long after they have left. Conversely, poor leaders want success now and for them. Steve Jobs was most definitely focused on building something great in the form of Apple, but still cultivated the “cult of I” and took credit for most things at Apple. No doubt he was responsible because he was the time teller, e.g. telling people what was right rather than building a team that could make the right decisions. He has left behind a mission and vision but didn’t spend enough time clock building. That task is now in the hands of Tim Cook. The real principle here then is that “Built to Last” companies have a culture of innovation and excellence not a dictator of innovation and excellence.
Embrace the “and” reject the “or”
This principle is about holding two seemingly contradictory and divided views; for example, pursing “low cost and high quality” rather than “low cost or high quality”. Fundamentally this is about rejecting the assumed norms and limitations. To embrace the and requires new thinking and often innovation.
Visionary Companies Are More than Profit
This is not a new concept and Peter Drucker puts it this way; “Profitability is not the purpose of, but a limiting factor on business enterprise and business activity. Profit is not the explanation, cause, or rationale of business behaviour and business decisions, but rather the test of their validity”. Profit is the by-product of running a successful business not the driver.
Visionary companies walk the talk
What is your company’s vision, mission and values? If you have to look it up then you are not working for a visionary company. You probably work for a company whose marketing department created a set of slides or documents because they were told these are good things to have rather than ways of expressing who they are and what they believe. Visionary companies live their vision, mission and values through their culture. Staff and customers have no doubt about what they are about. This unity of purpose and value provide a powerful engine for growth.
Recognise that being a visionary company is a never-ending process
This is the internal – and eternal- drive for a better tomorrow. It’s a culture where good enough isn’t enough and this is best described as a “learning organisation” where commands such as “just follow the process” and “don’t rock the boat” don’t exist. It’s the principle that success is a journey not a destination and this stimulates continuous improvement and innovation.
Preserve the core ideology whilst stimulating progress
The authors talk about BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) as a means of stimulating progress. Again BHAG’s seem pretty similar to stretch targets which may or not stimulate growth depending on whether staff believe and are engaged in the BHAG. This is about leadership and mission. Your mission may be enduring or sequential. You can just imagine Steve Jobs saying: “our next mission is to do to phones what we did to the MP3 player” or “Were going to do to tablets what we did to phones” .
There are more points that the authors make, but my interpretation of the key elements is:
- Leadership is about building the right company culture not your own cult status.
- Developing a culture that learns and strives for innovation and excellence.
- On-boarding staff and training teams that are unified behind a powerful vision and mission.
- Investing in people, personal development and succession planning so that the culture isn’t diluted through external hires into senior positions.
- Reinvigorating the organisation through successive missions (Or BHAG’s) that stretch and engage staff.
- Ensuring that profit does not override vision and values as the main business driver.
- Break new ground by connecting (“and”) not dividing (or) goals.
The main assertion though by Jim and Jerry is that you can architect a company that will last. I think the answer to this is based on your understanding of “built to last”; If you imagine an indestructible entity then clearly the answer is no; it’s an architecture based on people and that is the strongest and weakest link. However, if you understand it to be an architecture that is more likely to weather economic storms and technological changes and disruption, then I believe the answer is yes.
I would explain it using the analogy of the mainframe and the internet. The old view of the CEO is of the all-knowing, all powerful mainframe computer from which all answers and directions would be given. I would suggest Steve Jobs was rooted in that “command and control” model. However, the problem with the mainframe is its single point of failure. If they get it wrong or leave, then the business can easily go adrift.
Building a resilient business requires a different model where the CEO creates a “hive mind”, an internet model of interconnected and collaborative individuals that are unified behind a single vision and core values. Just like the internet, this model is far more powerful because it harnesses all the talent within the organisation and doesn’t rely on a single point of failure. Ken Blanchard puts it quite succinctly: “None of us is as smart as all of us”.
I expand further on this topic in Business Innovation available from Amazon.