Saturday, June 16, 2007

Built To Last, by Collins and Porras

Built To Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, by Collins and Porras

The subtitle of this book is Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, but that turns out to be a better description of the content than Built To Last. This is a large case study of companies that have been successful for over 50 years (American Express, Merck, Nordstrom, 3M, IBM, Disney, Boeing, Ford, Motorola, Wal-Mart, ...) and are widely respected by modern CEOs. There are lessons here to be sure, but in the same fashion as in The Tipping Point it is all anecdotal, not causal. Observing that all these companies have common traits is interesting, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that companies that have these traits will be successful. Collins and Porras mitigate this lack of proof quite a bit, however, by examining rival companies (Wells Fargo, Pfizer, Melville, Norton, Burroughs, Columbia Pictures, McDonnell Douglas, General Motors, Zenith, Ames, ...) and finding them lacking.

While interesting, much of the book was repetitive. It would bring up a trait or lesson (i.e., “Not all visionary companies are founded by visionary leaders”) and then explore how several of the companies in the use case illustrate the tenet and how the anti-companies don’t. The corporate histories were interesting, but in many cases I thought the point was made well before the examples stopped. Towards the end the authors start trying to show how these lessons can be applied to today’s corporations, but I thought this material was covered much better in Leading Change. Built To Last also felt very dated, which I found ironic due to the title. Many of the companies used as anti-examples no longer exist (e.g., Melville, Burroughs, Columbia, Ames) as described, and some of the positive examples (Ford, Wal-Mart) aren’t as admired as they once were. One passage that jumped out at me as anachronistic: “Picture an urban freeway without Marlboro cowboy billboards or rural America without Wal-Mart stores.” Wal-Mart hasn’t been “rural” for over a decade and the last time I remember seeing the Marlboro man he was being played by Don Johnson. Considering the book was first released in 1994 I found this quite surprising.

Negatives aside, this book is definitely worth reading. The keys to visionary companies are few: a strong core ideology, good succession planning, and audacious goals. Core values give a company the ability to use something other than profit and opportunity to make decisions. Succession planning allows organizations to thrive after the founder or other talented leadership retire. Big Hairy Audacious Goals (as the authors term them) give employees something that both unites and motivates them. Together, these factors were found in all successful visionary companies the authors studied. It has been a long time (if ever!) since I’ve worked in a place that had a solid vision or bold goals, but these are certainly ideas for which I’ll be on the lookout in future job searches.

First Sentence:
This is not a book about charismatic visionary leaders.

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