QUAY Book Review: How The Mighty Fall By Jim Collins

Book Review By: Benjamin Drury

Are some businesses too big to fail, or is their decline just an inevitable part of life? And what about your business? Are you on the decline, and how can you tell?  

If you’ve read any business book in the last twenty years, you will no doubt have come across the author Jim Collins. His in-depth research is well known, and his seminal works Good to Great and Built to Last – which look at why some companies become exceptional and stand the test of time, while others disappear into the annals of mediocrity – are multi-language best sellers.

 

If you haven’t read them, do so. They are packed with deep understanding and insights about how businesses function, and since his books are the foundation of the work I do with companies, it’s fair to say I am a big fan of Jim Collins.

 

His third book, How The Mighty Fall (subtitled and why some companies never give in) takes a brand new angle on the research. A five-year project, it examines businesses that didn’t make it, businesses that clearly weren’t built to last, and businesses that were once great but are not anymore, deep-diving into why companies that we used to love, and which had the world at their feet, lost their way, forgot where they came from, and either died or became irrelevant.

This is a fate that Jim Collins says can befall absolutely any business, no matter the size.

There is no law that says big companies can’t fail, and in the current fast-moving world, where any kid in their parents’ garage can launch the next market disruption, there is absolutely no guarantee of staying in number one position. Just ask Blockbuster, Nokia, or Kodak.  

As Collins puts it, just like people, a business ‘can look strong on the outside but already be extremely sick on the inside, dangerously on the cusp of a precipitous fall.’

So how can you tell if your business is in danger of failing, and what can you do about it? 

If you want to know how to stay on top and avoid becoming the next brand to crash and burn, then How The Mighty Fall is definitely worth a quick read – and it is a quick read. At just 123 pages, it’s much shorter than his earlier two volumes, but is still extremely well researched and full of useful insights.

In his usual rigorously academic style, Collins doesn’t jump to conclusions or provide personal opinions based on anecdotes like a lot of modern business books do – he merely helps the data speak for itself as he takes readers through the five stages of corporate decline. These are: hubris born of success, the undisciplined pursuit of more, denial of risk and peril, grasping for salvation, and capitulation to irrelevance.

He helps the reader understand the symptoms of each stage, and what it looks when a company is suffering a decline without realising it, so you can see where you might be in the process. 

The book is packed with many high-profile examples of companies that we all know have navigated the five stages, examining the reasons why they found themselves in each part of the decline, and offering wonderfully sanguine comparisons with companies that managed to avoid each stage, while providing plenty of practical and strategic actions to help you learn what moves you’ll need to make to stop a decline in its tracks.

The book builds on its fascinating business case studies by offering teachings from Winston Churchill (‘never surrender’) and the training of US Navy Seals (‘breathe, calm yourself, think, focus, aim’), leading to a very well rounded and useful book.

It finishes with the good news, which is that – as with some of the real-life illustrations from the book – if you haven’t reached stage 5 of the decline yet, there is still time to halt the slide and return to greatness. In short, stage 1 does not inevitably lead to stage 5, and neither does stage 4.  You can still deal with the underlying issues, undo the damage, and return to the top of your game.

For me, How The Mighty Fall is an absolute hidden gem.  

While many people will have read Good To Great, few even know about this book, but it’s a great little book with so much to offer, and if you only read one Jim Collins book, make it this one.  

It incorporates and builds on much of the learning from his first two books, can be finished in one sitting, and is structured with neat learning summaries that you can refer to when you need them. 

As well as the jam-packed 123 pages, the seven appendices are worth reading too, as they are full of additional case studies, along with a brief summary of the principles from Good to Great, which will leave you wanting to read the originals again.

Now, where did I put Good to Great?

About Benjamin Drury

Professionally, Benjamin is known as ‘The Culture Guy’ – the man that makes workplaces awesome!

He’s a compassionate optimist, always seeking to create a fairer world that works for everyone. He works with extraordinary, forward-thinking leaders to help build authentic, purpose-led, people-centred organisations that are fit for the 21st Century.

Book review by Benjamin Drury

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