Mackay: Industry's best firms show how smart choice is central to success

Diplomacy is all about making the right choices. When I persuaded my wife, Carol Ann, to say "I do" ages ago, we entered serious negotiations to nail down the ground rules for our marriage.

Then we hit on it. In our family, I would make all the major decisions, and she would make all the minor decisions! Many of my friends have asked me, "Harvey, how on earth could that ever work out?" My answer: "Very simple ... there have never been any major decisions."

Jim Collins is, without doubt, the hottest name in the hard science of business analytics. He has dazzled C-suites coast to coast with bestselling books such as "Built to Last" and "Good to Great."

In the diplomacy arena, Jim's no cream puff, either. In fact, I think we're joined at the hip in how we tackle tact. Jim's wife, Joanne Ernst, won the 1985 Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. Regarding his wife, Jim has gone on record with this analysis: "We've been married 20 years, and we have 50-50 ownership. But she holds all the voting shares."

Jim's newest offering, "Great by Choice," written with Berkeley management professor Morten T. Hansen, is all about the power of choice in management. In showing that smart choice is central to success, the authors zero in on "10X companies," which beat their industry indexes by at least 10 times.

The authors disintegrate some colossal myths about business success. Take the notion that "great enterprises with 10X success have a lot more good luck." The well- documented finding: Everyone experiences luck, both good and bad, in comparable amounts. "The critical question is not whether you'll have luck, but what you do with the luck that you get," the authors write. They even have a measure for it: ROL, or Return on Luck.

Another assailed fable: "A threat-filled world favors the speedy; you're either the quick or the dead." But reality says that moving too fast is a good way to get killed. "10X leaders figure out when to go fast and when not to," the authors write.

Read "Great by Choice" thoughtfully, because it is jammed with plenty of ideas. You may have a tough time slowing down, though, as the text cruises along at a real page-turner pace. The book is sprinkled with lively anecdotes, such as Roald Amundsen's race to discover and reach the South Pole.

How did Amundsen's team prevail against its rivals? For one thing, Amundsen learned "as much as possible from practical experience about what actually worked. ... He observed (for example) how Eskimos never hurried, moving slowly and steadily, avoiding excessive sweat that could turn to ice in subzero temperatures."

You might think that the heroes in "Great by Choice" are relentless grinds. Not by a long shot. Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines, "understood that superb customer service naturally arises when people have fun at work." Kelleher once boasted to "60 Minutes" that he was "the only airline president in America who would go over to his maintenance hangar at two o'clock in the morning in a flowered hat with a feathered boa and a purple dress."

"The 20 Mile March" is another central lesson, this one about pacing. Want to cross the continent on foot? Do it at a regular sustained pace, day after day. Don't squander your energy in reckless bursts. Work with "a lower bound and an upper bound."

Maybe the book's most jarring revelation is that innovation is not all it's cracked up to be. The 10Xers aren't always more innovative than their less successful competitors, the authors write.

Discipline counts for more. "For a 10Xer, the only legitimate form of discipline is self-discipline, having the inner will to do whatever it takes to create a great outcome, no matter how difficult," the book says.

A Wall Street Journal reviewer opined: "The authors' conclusions sometimes feel like the claims of a well-written horoscope -- so broadly stated that they are hard to disprove."

Not in my opinion. "Great by Choice" is plenty more astronomical than astrological and one sure-fire way to steer by the stars.

Mackay's Moral: Management by choice will always lick management by chance.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.

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