Collins and Hansen’s Great By Choice: A Story of Quality Consciousness

Jim Collins, author of Built to Last (2004) and Good to Great (2001), released a new compendium of his research this fall entitled Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that these authors have also stumbled upon the importance of quality consciousnessawareness, alignment, and selectively focused attention! These are the keys to developing a highly successful “ten-X” (10X) organization (one that outperforms its industry index by at least ten times, especially during times of great volatility in the business environment).

Collins and his co-author, Morten Hansen, don’t call it quality consciousness, though – they call it “Level 5 Ambition.” And Level 5 Ambition consists of three traits: fanatic discipline, empirical creativity, and productive paranoia. Each of these traits demonstrates one or more aspects of quality consciousness. Here’s how (using excerpts from p. 35 and 36 of the book):

Fanatic discipline: 10Xers display extreme consistency of action – consistency with values, goals, performance standards, and methods. They are utterly relentless, monomaniacal, unbending in their focus on their quests [emphasis added].

Consistency of action is enabled by awareness of quality standards, and unrelenting attention towards achieving them.

Empirical creativity: When faced with uncertainty, 10Xers do not look primarily to other people, conventional wisdom, authority figures, or peers for direction; they look primarily to empirical evidence. They rely upon direct observation, practical experimentation, and direct engagement with tangible evidence. They make their bold, creative moves from a sound empirical base.

By aligning the actions of an organization and its players with what the evidence shows will work, everyone is more confident and able to engage fully in the pursuit of shared goals. A data-driven approach, familiar to anyone who understands quality improvement practice, allows an organization to test its ideas on a smaller scale before committing to major changes.

Productive paranoia: 10Xers maintain hypervigilance, staying highly attuned to threats and changes in their environment, even when – especially when – all’s going well. They assume conditions will turn against them, at perhaps the worst possible moment. They channel their fear and worry into action, preparing, developing contingency plans, building buffers, and maintaining large margins of safety.

Hypervigilance is heightened awareness of the external environment, even during times of peace and productivity. The aspect of productive paranoia that I think is most instructive, however, is that it involves a choice of where to focus your attention: instead of harboring worry and panic about what might happen, the productively paranoid manager will focus on understanding failure modes, developing contingency plans, identifying backup strategies, and planning to branch off on alternative paths, if necessary. The attention is purposefully and positively diverted from unproductive emotions (worry and panic) to productive emotions (the positive feelings associated with being prepared).

Even though nearly 40% of the end of the book is an “Epilogue” containing more detail about Collins and Hansen’s research methodology and results, this is still a very substantial read, and one with very practical advice for businesses aiming to succeed through a challenging economy. My graduate students in technology management enjoyed it too.


  • The concept of “productive paranoia” is indeed crucial to understanding how to streamline outcomes and leverage scarce resources…not to mention avoiding “fire drills” that waste time and leach away inspiration and creativity.

    Thanks for this review!

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