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Jim Collins and Morten Hansen: An interview by Bob Morris

Jim Collins

Jim Collins is a student and teacher of enduring great companies — how they grow, how they attain superior performance, and how good companies can become great companies.  Having invested nearly a quarter of a century of research into the topic, Jim has authored or co-authored six books that have sold more than ten million copies worldwide.  They include Built to Last, Good to Great, and How the Mighty Fall. His most recent book is Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, co-authored with Morten Hansen.  Based on nine years of research, it answers the question: Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not?  Great by Choice distinguishes itself from Jim’s prior books by its focus not just on performance, but also on the type of unstable environments faced by leaders today. Driven by a relentless curiosity, Jim began his research and teaching career on the faculty at Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he received the Distinguished Teaching Award in 1992. In 1995, he founded a management laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, where he now conducts research and consults with executives from the corporate and social sectors.  He holds degrees in business administration and mathematical sciences from Stanford University, and honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Colorado and the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University.

Morten Hansen

Morten T. Hansen is a management professor at the University of California, Berkeley (School of Information) and at INSEAD, France. Formerly a professor at the Harvard Business School, he holds a Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, where he was a Fulbright scholar and received the Jaedicke award for outstanding academic performance. His award-winning research has been published in leading academic journals, and he is the winner of the Administrative Science Quarterly award for having made exceptional contributions to the field of organization studies. Hansen has published several best-selling articles in the Harvard Business Review and is the author of the management book, Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results. A native of Norway and a former silver medalist in the Norwegian junior track and field championship, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two daughters, and enjoys running, hiking and traveling.

Here is an excerpt. To read the complete interview, please click here.

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Morris: When and why did you two decide to write Great by Choice and how was the division of labor determined?

Hansen: Around 2001, during the time of the boom and bust and 9/11, the world turned unstable and uncertain. People, including our students, kept asking us, how do you manage in unstable times? How do you prevail?  How do you become great in a world out of control? Finally, this topic grabbed us so completely that we both decided that we had to pursue it.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while you and your associates conducted the research over a period of nine years, 2002-2011?

Hansen: During this period, we experienced a recession (2001-02), a huge boom (2003-07), the great recession (2008-10) and the great uncertainty (2010-probably forever). These shifting circumstances just reinforced to us that we don’t live in stable times. In fact, we came to the conclusion that the past 50 years have been an abnormal period of stability and that what we will be experiencing going forward is a permanent state of instability, uncertainty, disruption, and even chaos.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ from the one you originally envisioned?

Collins: We started the project with the idea that it would just be an article.  But the question and findings proved so fascinating, that we decided to shift gears into a full-blown multi-year research effort that could be a book.

Morris: To what extent does it differ significantly from those earlier works?

Collins: First, there are some important similarities across the four studies.  They all use the historical matched-pair research method.  They all proceed with a “let the data speak” approach, following the evidence rather than our own preconceptions.  They all have powerful conceptual frameworks.  They all use vivid stories as a pedagogical method for teaching the concepts.

There are three main differences between this study and the others.  First, is the question itself: why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others don’t?  Unlike any of the prior books, we deliberately selected on the severity and instability of the environment, not just on performance.  Second, this study deliberately examined small, vulnerable enterprises that rose to greatness, giving us insight into entrepreneurial leadership that we did not have in the prior works.  And finally—although we did not plan this—it has some of the most directly useful ideas that apply not just to building companies, but also to navigating a life in an uncertain and chaotic world.

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To read the complete interview, please click here.

Jim and Morten cordially invite you to check out the resources at these websites:

Bob Morris is an independent management consultant based in Dallas who specializes in accelerated executive development. He has interviewed more than 100 business thought leaders and reviewed more than 2,200 business books for Amazon. Each week, we will add to the Networlding Business Bookshelf abbreviated reviews in which he discusses a few of his personal favorites. You can contact him directly at

Melissa G Wilson

Melissa has been a leader in the book writing, publishing and marketing arena for the past two decades. To date, she has helped more than 100 thought leaders write, publish and market their books. Her clients include executives such as Dan Weinfurter a seven-time Inc 500 winner and Orlando Ashford, President of Holland Cruise Lines.

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