“We learn from history that we do not learn from history” ― Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Posted: September 15, 2013 in society, Uncategorized

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t  by Jim Collins is a book on company management which appeared in 2001. It lists eleven companies, and examines reasons for their “greatness”. Unfortunately, two of the companies are no longer with us. Both Fannie Mae (picked off by poor lending practices) and City Circuit Stores (bankrupt in 2009). A third, Wells Fargo, required a bit of propping up during the Global Financial Crisis.

Ok, greatness doesn’t last forever and even the Roman Empire fell. But it should tell us something when the top ELEVEN companies – and remember how many thousands of companies that writer had to choose form – are reduced to nine in less than ten years after the book was written.

When it comes to trying to make some general rules about success, most people fall for the “Let’s Look at What Successful People Did” problem. People rarely look at failure, in order to make a worthwhile comparison. In fact, failure is rarely examined at all. When was the last time you saw a book about people you never heard of, asking them what they did which led to them being redundant, homeless or stuck in the one low paid job for thirty years?

And the trouble with looking at successful people? Well, they’re successful. That means, it worked at the time of writing. It doesn’t mean that what they did will work for anyone else, or that it’ll continue to work into the future.

If I read the story of the singer who quit their job and poured their life savings into making an album of all the songs they’d written over the years, there’s a very good chance that the story is being written because they’ve just won a Grammy, or gone Gold. However, I suspect using them as my role model may not work as well (even if I did manage to put music to the poetry I wrote in my twenties).

As for future perfomance, if one considers a ten lap race, the person who leads at the end of the first lap won’t necessarily be the winner. They may have used up too much energy early, and collapse in a heap. The person who has planned the race in order to be still finishing strongly is a better prospect. Of course, life is not a ten lap race. It just keeps going lap after lap, so it’s much easier not to think too much and to just be impressed by those who are in front at a particular moment.

And that’s the trouble with so many business books like “Good To Great”. They appear to be taking the long view because they look backwards. If one of them uses a company like Enron or Lehman Brothers as an excellent example of a business to emulate, when the disaster hits, the new additions simply remove the entry or add a footnote about how this unforeseen event that nobody expected was totally unforeseen, so just concentrate on the good bits.

Can we learn from other people’s success? Yes. But we can also learn from failure and, with failure, I’d certainly rather learn from other people’s. We learn best when we combine the two. Of course, believe it or not, you’re own experiences may be the best information you have. What someone else writes may help you understand it, but, in the end, what worked for other people may not work for you.


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