The Making Of Collin’s ‘Good to Great:’ There Was A Sense Of Faith That We Would Get To The End


WHAT’S so impressive about Jim Collin’s latest book “Good to Great” is that it was a massive research and writing undertaking that required a lot of patience and endurance to complete. Thus, like a big-budget, grand film, its making is an object of curiosity for its readers. To satisfy this curiosity, I e-mailed Jim Collins some questions, which he has taken precious time to answer.

In sharing his experiences on the making of the book, he describes the team management process that helped the book become a reality. The process is a model in itself for energizing teams for peak performance. He also reveals his after-book insights on one of the most significant findings of the book the existence of Level 5 leadership and how this type of leadership seems to be more widespread that he thought it would be. Read this virtual conversation on the behind-the-book story on the book that is taking the management field by storm.

RGR: What were your criteria in selecting researchers for your team? What’s the profile of your team?

Collins: We came to call ourselves “The Chimps,” in honor of our mascot, Curious George—the curious little chimp who wants to look under the yellow hat, just to see what’s there. I wanted people who displayed four basic characteristics: smart, curious, hard working and genetically encoded to be irreverent. I wanted people who would work their brains out in search of the best answers and who would be loyal to the data above all else.

RGR: Why did it take five years to make? Did you know it would take that long to do the research?

Collins: I knew it would take years, as that is the nature of this type of massive research project. In all, we collected and read nearly 6,000 articles, tracked down and interviewed key executives for over 2,000 pages of interview transcripts and did a wide array of quantitative and qualitative analysis. The company selection process alone took six months of work, and another six to pick the comparison companies. If you read the research appendixes, you can see why the project took so long.

Also, we talk in today’s world about reducing cycle time. But there is one thing you cannot make go faster: insight and understanding. Insight operates on its own clock, and it is generally a slow clock. We needed time for the ideas and findings to gestate into a solid framework. To be sure that insights and ideas make lasting sense, you need to live with them for awhile.

RGR: What were your working styles?

Collins: Here is an excerpt for a write-up I did during the middle of the research, for a chapter in a book for the Peter Drucker Foundation. It gives a reasonably good description of the process:

“The research teams, usually four to six people, operate in a high-performance, high-energy climate characterized by a powerful sense of team unity and work ethic. During the summer session, research team members frequently work more than forty hours per week putting forth whatever it takes to accomplish objectives on time, with thoroughness, accuracy, and quality…”

And yet, this high-performance environment relies almost not at all on the traditional methods of coercion and control. We have no offices or fixed hours; other than team meetings, researchers work on their own, managing their own time… They have no budget constraints; if they need something to get their work done, they simply buy it and get reimbursed. They’re not coerced by the carrot of a career path or prospect of long-term employment, as the lab operates under a strict ‘no permanent full-time employees’ model…And it’s not the money; while they’re paid better than other graduate research assistants, they earn less per hour than if they spent their summer at a corporation or consulting firm.

The whole key to the high performance climate on the research team is mechanisms of commitment and connection rooted in freedom of choice. We operate on a clear set of deadlines and project objectives; yet team members generally select their own deadlines, as people feel much more committed to a deadline that they have a hand in setting… Most important, we design the work process such that team members must draw from each other’s work as the project progresses…

When team members request to miss a key team meeting, they do not ask me for permission; rather, they personally call each team member and get his or her consent, and I delegate the power of consent to the team. And, as a precursor to all of the above, each person invited to join the team receives a written and verbal orientation on the values, purpose, and performance standards of the team, and is asked to join only if he or she can to commit to those principles. Before joining, they’re told: “If you have any doubt about whether this is the right place for you, then it is in our mutual interest that you decline this opportunity.”

RGR: What were the “highs” of the research team?

Collins: The weekly team meetings, when we would gather to present our emerging findings and to discuss “what it all means.” We really had fun in our team meetings. Then, as the framework of ideas came clear, there was the excitement of discovery.

RGR: What were the “lows” of the research team?

Collins: The daily grind of collecting data and doing analyses. There is a lot of tedium in research.

RGR: Did the team (and did you) at any point feel any discouragement in the whole process of this research?

Collins: Not to my knowledge. There was always a deep sense of faith that we would eventually get to the end and have meaningful things to say.

RGR: What kept your team moving on?

Collins: The joy of discovery and the importance of the project. Plus, we were really committed to each other as a group. I think the chimps really enjoyed working with each other. I think we really had fun.

RGR: What insights/realizations do you have now after everything is completed?

Collins: Great question. I think, for one, that Level 5 leadership is more widespread than I realized. As I wrote for the Conference Board annual essay, earlier this autumn:

I used to think of these leaders as rare birds, almost freaks of nature. But then, a funny thing happened after a seminar where I shared the Level 5 finding and bemoaned the lack of Level 5 leaders. After the session, a number of people stopped by to give examples of Level 5 leaders they’d observed or worked with. Then again, at another seminar, the same thing happened. Then again, at a third seminar and a pattern began to emerge. It turns out that many people have experienced Level 5 leadership somewhere in their development a Level 5 sports coach, a Level 5 platoon commander, a Level 5 boss, a Level 5 entrepreneur, a Level 5 CEO. There is a common refrain: “I couldn’t understand or put my finger on what made him so effective, but now I understand: he was a Level 5.” People began to clip articles and send e-mails with examples of people they think of as Level 5 leaders, past or present: Orin Smith of Starbucks Coffee, Joe Torre of the New York Yankees, Kristine McDivitt of Patagonia, John Whitehead of Goldman Sachs, Frances Hesselbein of The Drucker Foundation, Jack Brennan of Vanguard, John Morgridge of Cisco Systems, former Secretary of State George Shultz, and so on. My list of Level 5 leaders began to grow exponentially.

Then it dawned on me, our problem is not a shortage of Level 5 leaders. They exist all around us. Like the drawing of two faces that transforms itself into a vase, depending on how you look at the picture, Level 5 leadership jumps out at us as soon as we change how we look at the world and alter our assumptions about how it best works.

Our problem lies in the fact that our culture has fallen in love with the idea of the celebrity CEO. Charismatic egotists who swoop in to save companies grace the covers of major magazines because they are much more interesting to read and write about than people like Darwin Smith and David Maxwell. This fuels the mistaken belief held by many directors that a high profile, larger-than-life leader is required to make a company great.

We keep putting people into positions of power who lack the inclination to become Level 5 leaders, and that is one key reason why so few companies ever make a sustained and verifiable shift from good to great.”

RGR: Will there now be a sequel to “Built to Last?” (You said “Good to Great” was a prequel.) And what would it be?

Collins: I don’t know what comes next. After the publication of “Built to Last” in 1994, a six-year research project looking at the question of what it takes to build enduring great companies from the ground up, I found myself groping for what to work on next. I love nothing more than the blissful tranquility of complete immersion in a huge project designed to answer a worthy question; having such a project eliminates all existential angst about what to do with myself. I get up every morning and there is “the project,” begging for attention like a loyal pet. But with the book’s publication, a huge void opened in my life. The residual momentum of the previous project pressed on me, tempting me to dive headfirst into another one. And then, to everyone’s surprise, we were blessed with the good luck of a bestseller. As the book took off, the pressure from others to “get on with the next one to capitalize on the last one” began to mount, further fueling my angst about the need for a new question, a new project to fill the gap.

Fortunately, my wife Joanne pulled me out of the muck. “Don’t just do a new book to do a new book,” she offered. “Don’t rush off looking for a new topic. Don’t pick a new question. Maybe it would be best to wait until a question picks you.”

It was very wise advice, and I decided to follow it. So, to answer your question, I am going to follow that same advice: I’m going to wait until a question picks me.

Author: Regina Galang Reyes. First published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer December 26, 2001.

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