How The Mightily Unaware Fall: Entrepreneurs And Authors Must Be Self-aware To Be Serially Successful

How the Mighty Fall  You have authored two bestselling books explaining why certain companies will “Last” and how others have gone from “Good to Great” and subsequently a majority of the companies falter and some completely fail. What do you do?

Do you introspectively evaluate your research methodologies and assess your failed assertions? Do you admit that you may have mistakenly analyzed the data?

If you are Jim Collins, you ignore the fact that your underlying assumptions and interpretation of the data were flawed. To further enhance your state of denial, you write a new book entitled How the Mighty Fall and blame the previously vaunted companies for subsequently faltering.

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The Promise Of Mr. Collins’ Books

Of the twenty eight companies cited in Built to Last and Good to Great, ten subsequently suffered significant operational and financial setbacks, four were bailed out by the US government and one filed for bankruptcy. Thus, over one-half of the companies identified by Mr. Collins as exemplary proved to be anything but.

In an attempt to defend his bestselling works, Mr. Collins once said, “The books never promised that these companies would always be great, just that they were once great.” Unfortunately, this statement is not consistent with the books’ contents. For instance, in Built to Last, the companies were cited because their cultures, organizational structures, and innovativeness ensured that they were “built to last,” not because they were “currently great.” Surprisingly, both books remain in print. Maybe Mr. Collins should revise their titles to: Built to Last for Awhile and Good to Great for Now.  

As noted in Why Most Business Books Suck, books which retrospectively analyze data and attempt to predict the future are doomed to fail. Mr. Collins’ latest book would be far more credible if he took responsibility for his past faulty predictions. Instead, Mr. Collins spends a majority of the thin volume defending the veracity of his methodologies and repeatedly citing the reams of research which underlie his assertions. For instance, at one point, Mr. Collins tells the reader that his forthcoming book is, “…based on a six-year research project…”

Mr. Collins’ lack of self-awareness would be only slightly ironic except for the fact that he unwittingly describes Five Stages of Decline, which directly reflect the trajectory of his writing career.  

Stage 1: Hubris Born of Success – Mr. Collins books have sold over 10 million copies. His success has clearly clouded his self-awareness.

Stage 2: Undisciplined Pursuit of More – More books, more speaking engagements, more consulting, more hubris

Stage 3: Denial of Risk and Peril – Intellectually dishonest post mortem regarding his books’ failures

 Stage 4: Grasping for Salvation – A non-apologetic book that claims the failed companies in question dramatically changed after the books were published, rather than exploring the author’s inadequacies

Stage 5: Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death – Although it is doubtful Mr. Collins will admit his own irrelevance, it is probable that the book buying public will do so on his behalf.

In the Preface to How the Mighty Fall, Mr. Collins indicates that, “The origins of this work date back to more than three years earlier, when I became curious about why some of the greatest companies in history, including some once-great enterprises we’d researched for Built to Last and Good to Great, had fallen.” Thus, one would assume that the faltering companies referenced in his two best sellers would be discussed in detail. Instead, of the fifteen companies which have either failed or significantly stumbled, only six are addressed at any length. Amazingly, the majority of How the Mighty Fall discusses companies not mentioned in his prior books. Successful serial entrepreneurs understand that such a lack of introspection and denial of one’s shortcomings is a dangerous combination, as discussed in greater depth in (Non)sense of Entitlement.

At one point, Mr. Collins poses the question, “What should we do if we find ourselves failing?” He answers this question by asserting, “…the answer lies in adhering to highly disciplined management practices…” What Mr. Collins fails to realize is that no matter how highly disciplined one’s practices, without a healthy dose of self-awareness, personal and professional success will remain elusive.

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John Greathouse has held a number of senior executive positions with successful startups during the past fifteen years, spearheading transactions which generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.
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Copyright © 2007-10 by J. Meredith Publishing. All rights reserved.

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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  • David Giacomini

    I couldn’t agree with you more. There is very little accountability these days and is is much easier to find correlations to success when looking backwards than predicting forward. Besides, too often people equate correlation with causation.

    Another example of this is 22 Immutable Laws of Branding which touts the future success of AOL and criticizes Apple and Amazon for their lack of focus. In hindsight it is pretty funny. Although, I love the book as there are tons of good insights into branding that resonated with me and reinforced my perceptions.
    Another of my favorite business books are those by Gladwell and Randy Komisar’s “The Monk & the Riddle.” Those books weave business oriented concepts in a fun and engaging manner that go beyond superficial analysis.
    I’m not a big fan of Collins and his books. About the only thing worse is sitting in a meeting and hearing someone espouse some citation from one of his books as gospel of what a great company would do. Books are meant to spur critical thinking not replace thinking.

  • John Greathouse

    David,

    “Books are meant to spur critical thinking not replace thinking.”

    Wow, great comment.

    I have heard Collins is a superior speaker and that he tailors his talks to his audience. What is disturbing is when a group hears him speak and takes his “opinion” as “gospel”. Your final sentence encapsulates this perfectly.

    John

  • Ash Conway

    Very good and funny piece. I agree with your premise, but I wonder if some of his ideas can be taken as still valid. Specifically, in Good To Great he talks about getting the right people on the bus to be great. Let’s assume that the idea does not translate to long term success, as you note rightly, but can we infer that it is in fact vital to any success? What are your thoughts on that?

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