Friday, October 14, 2011

Great by Accident?- More Flawed Research by Jim Collins

Several years ago, after seeing multiple references to it, I bought a used copy of Jim Collins' Good To Great, published originally in 2001. I wrote this brief review in 2005 and, judging by the lack of subsequent pieces on the topic, didn't really find more of interest in the book to bother critiquing. Some of my key observations were captured in these passages from that post,

"Much of my work for the last decade has involved measuring the performance of publicly-held U.S. corporations. There is really only one body of work of which I am aware that sounds remotely similar to mine.

What I found upon reading Collins’ methodology was an odd mixture of quantitative and qualitative bases of analyses. There are a variety of problems with his methods, which I will ......."

I must admit, I was rather shocked that such slipshod and simplistic quantitative definitions of “good” and “great” performances would exist in a book so seemingly well-regarded in the business community. Perhaps it is yet another case of the broad class of mediocre managers and leaders being unable to distinguish “great” work when they see it.

Between his use of market value, rather than total return, and a simple point-to-point measurement, Collins' metrics in his original book left a lot to be desired. As did his mixing in of qualitative measures which tend to be so judgemental as to be nearly useless for interpretation or application in other contexts.

Unless, of course, you were using the book as a marketing tool for your consulting efforts. Which Collins does.

Thus, I was interested to read in this past Tuesday's edition of the Wall Street Journal a review, by longtime Journal executive Alan Murray, of Collins' recently-published book, Great by Choice. The review's title was Turbulent Times, Steady Success, which I found a bit of a reach, for reasons I'll explain later in this post. The highlight, or subheadline for the review read How certain companies achieved shareholder returns at least 10 times greater than their industry.

To start with, Collins uses cumulative returns over long periods of time to judge a company as “good” and/or “great.”

However, my own research on large U.S. publicly-held companies reveals that among companies which outperform the S&P 500 average total return over a period of years, firms which consistently outperform the S&P index, on average, create shareholder wealth at a much higher rate than companies which earn most of their total returns with a few years of outstanding performance.

Just reading those few lines told me a few things about problems with Collins' latest work. In fact, Murray's review contains enough information for me to find significant problems with Collins' latest work without having to actually waste time reading the whole thing.

First, I'm suspicious of published work of this type because no sane, intelligent person in the business world has published complete information on any market-beating strategies for decades. Whether a business school professor, consultant or equity portfolio manager, it doesn't pay to tell all. You always save something so that your published work can't be totally replicated or reverse-engineered, and prospective customers have to engage your services professionally to really benefit from your research findings.

One thing I discovered in my own proprietary research on US corporate performance over many years is that there is a limited timeframe within which most companies can demonstrate superior performance. And it's not a sufficient length of time to typically exhibit "steady success" during "turbulent times."

But, let me get to Murray's review. He begins with this telling paragraph,

 'Great by Choice" is a sequel to Jim Collins's best-selling "Good to Great" (2001), which identified seven characteristics that enabled companies to become truly great over an extended period of time. Never mind that one of the 11 featured companies is now bankrupt (Circuit City) and another is in government receivership (Fannie Mae). Mr. Collins has a knack for analysis that business readers find compelling."

Murray may have written that with his tongue in his cheek, but it lays bare a serious weakness with that type of approach. One I mentioned in an email to Murray after reading his review. I likened Collins' work to that of long-ago consulting guru Tom Peters, of "In Search of Excellence" fame. As I explained to Murray in my note,

"But the other aspect of his work which I noticed, having the benefit now of being aware of two of his works, is how much it reminds me of the Tom Peters' old type of 'great companies' books. Being, like me, of that certain age, I'm sure you recall the book which launched Peters out of McKinsey. Sadly, only a few years later, his great companies were no longer so.

I'd expect Collins' companies are likely to experience similar fates, because both authors use fixed timeframes of specific companies to construct their measures of greatness, rather than observe statistically-valid large samples that include many different time periods.

Peters wrote before the era of cheap desktop computing and inexpensive, exhaustive corporate data. But Collins hasn't. Yet his work still smacks of that 'hit parade' style of spotlighting a few companies for specific time periods, then extrapolating their idiosyncracies into strategic wisdom, rather than the other way around."

Suffice to say, starting with Peters, and now continued by Collins, this type of misleadingly shallow analysis provides business execs with easily-consumable 'best practices' candy, without actually being rigorous or deep in its methodology.

Murray describes the book's objective next,

"Mr. Collins's new book tackles the question of how to steer a company to lasting success in an environment characterized by change, uncertainty and even chaos."

Unfortunately, the objective is a chimera. I'm not going to divulge my own proprietary findings, because, among other uses, they help drive my own equity portfolio management process. Let me just assure readers that 'lasting success' is a good deal shorter time period than you'd ever believe. If more boards knew this, they'd be radically restructuring CEO compensation over time.

But, to provide a little more insight, all truly exceptionally-performing companies fall victim, within a definable number of years, to one or more of three forces: adjusted investor expectations; competition, and/or; regulatory scrutiny and action. Between the three, no company succeeds for too long. Here's a brief list of the once-great, now-fallen: Home Depot, Microsoft, Dell, Compaq, and Wal-Mart.

Murray then provides the reader with some information on the data which drove Collins' latest book,

"The data set that Messrs. Collins and Hansen examine so carefully ends in 2002, well ahead of the change, uncertainty and chaos of the 2008 financial meltdown. The intervening years were spent conducting their research. Still, the lessons of "Great by Choice" are not meant to apply to a particular moment of economic turbulence but to a continuous condition—a business world "full of rapid change and dramatic disruption."

For their study, the authors chose a set of major companies that achieved spectacular results over 15 or more years while operating in unstable environments; Messrs. Collins and Hansen call them "10Xers" for providing shareholder returns at least 10 times greater than their industry. Then the authors compared those companies—Amgen, Biomet, Intel, Microsoft, Progressive Insurance, Southwest Airlines, Stryker—to similar, but less successful, "control" companies: Genentech, Kirschner, AMD, Apple, Safeco, PSA and United States Surgical. It is an indication of the volatile nature of today's business success that, using 2002 numbers, Microsoft came out as a "10Xer" while Apple was its less successful "control" company, a ranking now reversed. More on that below."

Right away, I find serious flaws with Collins' approach.

First, no company posts "spectacular results" for 15 years. Yes, perhaps "over" 15 years, i.e., from point to point, over 15 years, there were some spectacular periods. But consistency has a value beyond a mere endpoint to endpoint total return value.

I've seen this sort of simplistic apparent performance phenomenon many times. Consider the nearby price chart for Dell, Microsoft, Apple, Home Depot and Google. Taken over the right timeframe, early years of stratospheric performance can offset a full decade of subsequent flatlining, as Microsoft's curve demonstrates.

Further, Collins' industry-specific metric renders his whole enterprise useless- except for, well, someone who wants to consult with his results to rather mediocre senior managers who read his book.

Here's why.

Investors can choose from among all public companies in which to invest. Even among private companies, in some cases. So to be truly exceptional, a manager should perform at a level among the best of, say, a broad equity market average. Not just his own industry.

By the way, just what defines an industry, anyway? Some companies don't have directly-comparable industry competitors. Others do, but only a very few. Consider auto makers. Do you count three- Ford, GM and Chrysler? Or two, when Chrysler was privately-held? Do you count Mercedes, Toyota, Honda, BMW,, although their parents and sizable operations are located outside the US?

And who believes Microsoft's badly-performing look-alike was ever Apple? Historically, Apple's integrated software and hardware competed with the Wintel combine of Intel and early PC makers IBM, Compaq or Gateway. Microsoft's Bill Gates was actually a guest at one of Steve Jobs' early Apple product debuts, as an example of a collaborative software publisher who appreciated having two platforms for which to create their products. Apple didn't do application software- just its proprietary operating system.

But that would make Collins' simplistic approach nearly impossible to use. So, instead, he opted for a comparison that has no credibility.

Having a point-to-point 15 year total return that is "10X" that of the average of three other firms in a poorly-performing sector like autos is hardly laudable. But if you plan to consult to Ford or GM, well, you could probably hoodwink those CEOs into at least listening to your sales pitch.

It's amazing how often people form impressions, a priori, on what constitutes a high-growth company. I've had some companies in my equity portfolios which few people would have thought would qualify if they knew the criteria for inclusion. Trust me, growth companies aren't just in technology sectors of the US economy.

Murray then provides his meatier treatment of the newly-published book,

"Messrs. Collins and Hansen draw some interesting and counterintuitive conclusions from their research. First, the successful leaders were not the most "visionary" or the biggest risk-takers; instead, they tended to be more empirical and disciplined, relying on evidence over gut instinct and preferring consistent gains to blow-out winners. The successful companies were not more innovative than the control companies; indeed, they were in some cases less innovative. Rather, they managed to "scale innovation"—introducing changes gradually, then moving quickly to capitalize on those that showed promise. The successful companies weren't necessarily the most likely to adopt internal changes as a response to a changing environment. "The 10X companies changed less in reaction to their changing world than the comparison cases," the authors conclude.

The book's organizing metaphor is built around the story of Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott, the two men who set out separately, in October 1911, to become the first explorers to reach the South Pole. Amundsen won the race by setting ambitious goals for each day's progress but also by being careful not to overshoot on good days or undershoot on bad ones, a disciplined approach shared by the 10Xers, according to Messrs. Collins and Hansen. Scott, by contrast, overreached on the good days and fell apart on the bad, mirroring the control companies in "Great by Choice."

If "Great by Choice" shares the qualities that made "Good to Great" so popular, it also shares some that drew criticism. The authors' conclusions sometimes feel like the claims of a well-written horoscope—so broadly stated that they are hard to disprove. Their 10X leaders are both "disciplined" and "creative," "prudent" and "bold"; they go fast when they must but slow when they can; they are consistent but open to change. This encompassing approach allows the authors to fit pretty much any leader who achieves 10X performance into their analysis. Would it ever be possible, one wonders, to find a leader whose success contradicted their thesis?"

Not content to critique the book generally, Murray fortunately, and shrewdly, provides an accidental example to which he referred earlier in his review,

"Which brings us back to Apple. Messrs. Collins and Hansen had no way of knowing, when they began sifting through their data in 2002, that Apple would become one of the most stunning turnaround stories in business history, soaring past Microsoft in market value. The late Steve Jobs accomplished that turnaround with a run of boldness, innovation, visionary thinking and egotism that might seem counter to the studied conclusions of "Great by Choice" as well as those of "Good to Great," in which Mr. Collins found that one of the leading attributes of the best business leaders was "humility." Steve Jobs?"

All of which satisfies me that Collins hasn't changed his approach much at all. He's still mixing hard-to-define qualitative assessments with quantitative ones. And applying them with, as Murray notes, considerably less than the precision one would wish.

Mr. Murray is not in the business of offending either an author who may advertise his book in the Journal, nor his readers. So he isn't about to land hard punches in his review by concluding that Collins' work is so vague and flawed as to be practically meaningless.

But I don't share Murray's constraints.

As I noted earlier, Collins' recent effort is perfect if what you hope to do is sell a book, for profits, that becomes a resident sales tool in many C-suites. And it even has an impressively-titled co-author from an equally-impressive university. But that doesn't make it valid or profound.

On that note, here's anecdote I learned years ago when I worked for Accenture's predecessor, Andersen Consulting. I had been chatting with Bob Gach, then a partner in the financial service group whose clients included Morgan Stanley and a few other investment banks. Since then, Bob has risen to become a very senior global partner in Accenture's financial services practice.

Back then, Bob was fretting because of the difficulty he was having closing a consulting contract with a Morgan Stanley executive.

As we discussed the firm's, and executive's behavior, Bob enunciated a principle which I've found to be pretty much universally true ever since. To paraphrase his remarks,

'This guy at Morgan Stanley really frustrates me. He's smart enough to force me to keep giving him enough examples of our work in his area, and to sign small pieces of work, that he keeps me from selling him the larger, more profitable interpretative and application modules.

When you think about it, the worst consulting customers are executives who are either really smart or really stupid. The smart ones know how to cherry pick a consultant's work and do the high value-added application of results to the rest of his businesses or operations.

The stupid ones are so thick they don't even understand why they need the consultant.

A consultant's best prospects are in the middle. Smart enough to know they need help. Dumb enough not to be able to get ahead of you in the thought process and rein in the scope of the project.'

Collins' work strikes me as designed to hit that middle group. It's too simplistic and flawed to sell to really intelligent business leaders. And the really slow ones will just never realize where to start to fix their problems.

But I can imagine quite a few middling companies with average executives jumping on Collins' rather shallow analyses as the answer to their prayers for some path out of mediocre performance.

And the beauty of Collins' approach, as Murray so deftly illustrates, is that there's always some other qualitative variable to blame when a CEO pays Collins for a lengthy engagement, follows his advice, and his business still doesn't outperform his peers.

I actually thought through all these issues when I was actively marketing the consulting application of my proprietary research on corporate performance. I even sold an engagement to the current chairman of the NYSE when he ran State Street Bank. Suffice to say, my consulting approach, as well as the research methods underpinning it, remains proprietary. But I will divulge that it is all quantitative, with no qualitative wiggle room.

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