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Book Summary – Great By Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, And Luck-Why Some Thrive Despite Them All

Great by Choice - Book summary

Uncertainty is unavoidable in business. Every company has to face external forces that it cannot predict nor control. The question is, why do some companies thrive in uncertainty or chaos, while others do not? “Great by Choice” addresses this question and breaks down the myths and reality of what it takes to create lasting success in a fast-changing world. In this free Great by Choice summary, we’ll give an overview of their key findings.

Collins and his research team spent years studying companies that rose to greatness, resulting in his famous books Good to Great, Built to Last and How the Mighty Fall. In Great by Choice, Collins and Hansen specifically zoom in on companies that not only succeeded, but thrived in times of uncertainty and chaos. We’ll now outline the key ideas in this article.

Great by Choice: An Overview

Collins and his team shortlisted 20,400 companies, filtered them through 11 rounds of cuts and arrived at a final list of 7 companies: Amgen, Biomet, Intel, Microsoft, Progressive Insurance, Southwest Airlines and Stryker. They called these the “10X cases” because (a) they beat their industry indexes by at least 10X over 15 years, and (b) did so during times of rapid, unpredictable and dangerous change.  You can learn more about the research methodology and the several business myths that were debunked from our full Great by Choice summary.

The difference between 10Xers and comparison cases is like the difference between 2 teams that adventured to the South Pole in 1911—one team completed the expedition while the other team perished. Although both teams had similar experience and faced similar circumstances, but their difference in their behaviors meant life vs death.

In a nutshell, here are the key components of “10X Leadership” that set 10Xers apart:Great by Choice Summary_10X Leadership OverviewWe’ll now give a quick overview of these components. Do refer to our full 14-page summary, for more details.


Fanatic discipline is about (a) adhering unyieldingly to certain values, purpose, long-term goals or performance standards, and (b) taking consistent action/ doing whatever it takes  to deliver those outcomes. In times of change or uncertainty, this discipline acts as an anchor, keeping the company onitrack and preventing it from blindly following the herd.

The authors use the analogy of a “20 Mile March” to explain fanatical discipline. Imagine 2 people traveling across the globe. Tom steadily covers 20 miles a day—regardless of the terrain, rain or shine—while Jack covers 35-40 miles on a good day and 0-5 miles on a not-so-good day. To achieve such consistent performance, Tom will have to overcome 2 discomforts: (a) to push himself to stay motivated and maintain his performance on bad days and (b) to exercise self-control so he doesn’t overexert himself on good days. In the long run, Tom’s results will be much more predictable than Jack’s.

In our complete Great by Choice summary, we share examples of how fanatic discipline are upheld by leaders, how companies like Southwest Airlines and Intel translate them into their 20 Mile Marches, what the 7 characteristics of a good 20-Mile March are and why they work in the long-run.

EMPIRICAL CREATIVITY: Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs

In times of uncertainty, most people follow what others do, e.g. fall back on prevailing norms, peer advice or authority figures. 10Xers don’t follow the herd, nor trust conventional wisdoms, expert opinions or untested ideas. They perform their own due diligence through direct observation, experiments and/or research. This allows them to make bold/creative moves from a solid empirical foundation.

In short, they fire lots of bullets to test/refine their aim, then fire calibrated cannonballs only when they know what works.  In our complete summary, we explain why 10Xers were not the most innovative, the 3 criteria for bullets, the difference between calibrated vs uncalibrated cannonballs, and examples of how companies like Amgen and Microsoft practice Empirical Creativity.

PRODUCTIVE PARANOIA: Leading above the Death Line

Unlike comparison companies, 10Xers stayed super-vigilant even when they were doing well and external conditions were rosy. They knew that things could change anytime and were paranoid about being prepared for unforeseen circumstances.

After all, to become great, you must first survive. A company “hits the death line” when it dies or becomes so battered that it cannot fully recover. 10Xers lead above the Death Line, channeling their fear/paranoia into productive action using 3 concrete sets of practices. To get details on each of these practices, with examples of how 10Xers used them to build reserves, manage risks and stay vigilant, do get a copy of our complete Great by Choice summary.

Level 5 Ambition

Exhibiting all 3 behavioral traits above can be quite extreme and intense. Yet, people are willing to follow 10X leaders because of the company’s Level 5 ambition, i.e. a larger and more enduring cause behind the company and its work.  The discipline and persistence are held together by a wider purpose.

Return on Luck + SMaC Recipe

  • To consistently translate their strategies into real-world actions, 10Xers developed an SMaC recipe, i.e. a specific, methodical and consistent set of operating practices, success code or formula. During turbulent times, the recipe helped 10Xers to stay consistent. Even in times of major industry upheaval, a good recipe usually needs to be partially adjusted, not revamped.
  • The authors’ research showed that both 10Xers and comparison companies experienced good luck and bad luck. What 10Xers did with the luck they got determined their outcomes, or their return on luck.

In our complete 14-page Great by Choice summary, we elaborate on both the components above, with examples to show how 10Xers used them to leapfrog others in times of crisis and change.

Getting the Most from Great by Choice

In this article, we’ve briefly outlined some of the key insights and strategies you can use to achieve desired change. For more examples, details, and actionable tips to apply these strategies, do get our complete book summary bundle which includes an infographic, 14-page text summary, and a 24-minute audio summary.

Great By Choice summary - book summary bundle

The findings in this book show that a company’s greatness depends on what people do, not on its environment. In this summary, we’ve distilled the key findings and recommendations. The book also includes many tips and resources including:

  • Details of their research foundations, e.g. methodology, 10X company selection, analyses of 20 mile march, innovation, financials, speed and examples of 10X companies’ vs comparison companies’ practices; and
  • FAQs on the concepts in the book and how they relate to other books like Good to Great, Built to Last and How the Mighty Fall.

Do get a copy of the book for the full details or you can check out our combined summary of Jim Collins’ strategy books here! You can also check out more details on the SMaC recipe here.

About the Authors of Great by Choice

Great By Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, And Luck-Why Some Thrive Despite Them All is written by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen.

James C. “Jim” Collins is an American author, lecturer and business consultant on leadership and what makes great companies tick. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Mathematical Sciences and an MBA 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 T. Hansen is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and INSEAD in France. Previously, he was an associate professor at Harvard Business School, where he taught leadership and general management. Hansen has also been a management consultant for a number of years with the Boston Consulting Group. He holds a PhD from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Great by Choice Quotes

“The signature of mediocrity is not an unwillingness to change; the signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency.”

“We are not imprisoned by our circumstances…we are free to choose, free to become great by choice.”

“The only mistakes you can learn from are the ones you survive.”

“Luck is not is strategy, but getting a positive return on luck is.”

“Luck favors the persistent, but you can persist only if you survive.”

Click here to download Great by Choice book summary and infographic

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