Good to Great

In the last six months, I’ve come across Good to Great and a few other books, each of which are very interesting on their own, but which, taken together, have provided me with some new insights into agile as a whole. I actively use the concepts in my management seminars.

I want to share those and this is the second blog in this series. The first one about Humanocracy can be found here.

or: good is the enemy of great

Jim Collins has worked with his team over several years to figure out what the difference is between companies that are just good and those that become outstanding. To do this, he has systematically sifted through companies from a wide variety of industries that at some point have begun to positively differentiate themselves from their peer group and has come across some commonalities that share many similarities with agile ideas, but in some places have a much broader view. Here is an excerpt:

  • Level 5 Leadership: Level 5 Leaders possess a unique blend of humility and will that is required for true greatness.
  • Who is more important than What: Put people first and strategy second. That means finding the right people for the organization before getting into business tactics.
  • The brutal truth: Accepting difficult realities while believing that one day the company will rise above them.
  • Body breakthrough flywheel (flywheel): Collins refers to building a great company as a metaphorical “flywheel,” which is a concrete form of iterative approach.
  • The hedgehog concept or: the art of staying focused. In an ancient Greek parable a comparison is drawn between the abilities of a hedgehog and a fox: Foxes are characterized as knowing little about many subjects, while hedgehogs know a lot about a single thing.
    Hedgehog behavior means understanding three things:
    1. What a company can be best at
    2. How his economy can work most effectively
    3. What can best inspire its employees

Why I learned to appreciate this book

  1. First of all: it’s controversial, but that’s what activates brain cells in me, not all of which are used to it. i.e., it addresses unpleasant truths that are largely unquestioningly accepted in the agile scene.
    The book takes no notice of my comfort zone and the ingrained habits of thought that have taken root in it. Some of the theses go down like oil, provoking me to applaud and shout “yeah, right”. Others hold up a mirror to show me that I don’t always critically question everything that is put in front of me.
  2. This leads me to the second point: It is, after all, already 20 years old and still so red-hot that I have to look at the imprint to make sure it is not completely up to date. It is therefore not suspected of copying from all the other agile management books – rather it is the other way around. But it is remarkable that so many similarities with our thinking can be found, although this book has completely different roots.
  3. For example, one of the hard truths for agilists is that Collins makes an important point about picking the right people and is also consistent enough to recommend getting rid of the wrong people. While this can be fairly easily misconstrued as a variant of the hire and fire policy favored by organizations lacking respect and managers lacking empathy.
    “Good to Great” makes significant efforts to avoid or correct this misunderstanding. It thus avoids spouting simple, well-sounding truths without compromising on attitude. .
  4. The scope is so much larger than what we understand traditional and agile to be, that it will personally take me some time to overlook all the implications of it.
    It deals with attitudes and values that are reflected in crystal-clear expectations of leaders, makes a connection to strategy (the hedgehog principle) and ends up with concrete concepts for strategy implementation that strike me as very modern: there is continuous improvement in it and a group called “council” that I would have christened “agile transition team” and has all its characteristics.

One anecdote remains on the sidelines: Howard Sublett, the Chief Product Owner of the Scrum Alliance, announced at the beginning of his work that his leadership team is oriented towards “Good to Great”. I bought the book then and put it on the big pile. Too bad. Stupid. But now I have found it.

Three management books that have influenced me

In the last six months, I’ve come across a couple of books that are each very interesting on their own, but together have provided me with some new insights into agile as a whole.

The first is“Humanocracy” by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini. It’s new, and I’ve been a fan of Gary Hamel for a long time. That came primarily via his wonderful talk on YouTube, “The Future of Management.”

I discovered the second book, “The infinite Game” by Simon Sinek quite banally in the recommendations that Amazon displays with every purchase. I know Simon Sinek through his concept “The golden Circle”, also known as “Start with Why”, which I use regularly, both as a tool for my own work and as an important building block in my leadership trainings. He has many talks on this on Youtube; I recommend the first seven minutes of “Most Leaders Don’t Even Know the Game They’re In” – they’re not complete, but are enough to trigger an addiction for more.

The third book, “From Good to Great” by Jim Collins, had been sitting in my inbox for so long that I had almost forgotten about it. It’s actually quite old, dating from 2001, but that’s what made it particularly relevant to me: it’s not one of those “me too” books, and it makes clear that the book’s theses are based on long hard empirical work. Therefore, it was a “second view” for me, which made some terms and concepts from agile sharper or put them in a new light.

On Key

The VSM Quick Guide: the model

The introduction to the series on Jon Walker’s VSM quick guide. It describes the simplified VSM vocabulary as used in the rest of the steps.