November 04, 2009

Educause '09: Jim Collins keynote

The first keynote session of the conference was, as is often the case, not about a specific technology or even really specifically about the sector. Jim Collins is an author and consultant who has worked on the question of what distinguishes great companies from merely good ones, and he spoke entertainingly (with a hint of Al Pacino; he likes to speak very quietly and then suddenly SHOUT and then go quiet again) on some of his thoughts and observations.

There isn’t really a narrative thread to be pulled out of what he said, so I’ll just jot down a few interesting points:-

I liked his five stages in the life of a company:-

  1. Hubris borne of success
  2. Undisciplined pursuit of more
  3. Denial of risk and peril
  4. Grasping for salvation
  5. Capitulation to irrelevance or death

A bit like the Gartner hype cycle, I guess, if slightly more doom-focussed. Other nuggets:-

  • Leadership is like a plug variable for companies; when we don’t really understand why a company is succeeding or failing, we ascribe it to leadership. But we don’t know what that is. Leadership exists in both succeeding and failing companies, so what’s the difference?
  • A leader who has concentrated power is different from one who doesn’t; we might call the latter “legislative” leaders; their role is to manage things so that the right decisions can be taken, rather than simply taking the decisions.
  • The exercise of power is not really leading; real leadership is getting people to do what you want even though they don’t have to.
  • Packard’s law states that if you allow growth to exceed your ability to execute on your plans for growth, you will fail. And key to execution is having the right people. A classic failure mode is to grow faster than you can put the right people in place to manage the growth.
  • Motivation is an internal characteristic. You can’t supply motivation to other people as if it were a commodity, and it’s insulting and pointless to try. You can destroy it and take it away, but you can’t manufacture it.
  • The signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency.
  • What is brand / reputation? A non-quantifiable sense of the trustworthiness of an institution; that it does the things that it says it does, well.
  • It’s a good strategy for both individuals and the organisations they work within to build “pockets of greatness”. Competence is powerful and attracts people, because it’s so rare. So someone who builds a pocket of greatness is likely to progress.
  • In the context of how power is distributed within different types of organisations, I was tickled by Jim’s description of academics within universities: a thousand points of no.

His advice for concrete things to go away and do? Cherry picking my favourites, we have:-

  1. Decide what not to do. Have a stop-doing list as well as a to-do list, though then, of course, you face the tricky dilemma of whether the stop-doing list belongs on your to-do list.
  2. Review your questions to statements ratio and see if you can double it in the next year. Knowing the right questions to ask is more important than knowing the answers.
  3. Turn off your gadgets; put whitespace in your calendar. You cannot enage in disciplined thought while checking your email/Twitter/Facebook or if your phone is ringing.

- 2 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Chris May

    Packard’s law is an interesting counterpoint to Joel Spolsky’s latest article in Inc, in which he craps his pants about Atlassian speculates that companies that go for “sustainable” growth levels tend to lose out to those who grow as fast as they possibly can, taking the example of Oracle vs. Ingress via Geoffrey Moore.

    http://www.inc.com/magazine/20091101/does-slow-growth-equal-slow-death.html?partner=fogcreek

    04 Nov 2009, 19:44

  2. John Dale

    Interesting. Not sure if there’s really a difference; Packard’s law, AIUI, doesn’t say that you shouldn’t grow as fast as you can, only that companies tend to over-estimate what that rate actually is.

    04 Nov 2009, 20:20


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