After Built to Last came out, there was a lot of question of what to work on next, and I felt a lot of pressure to work on another book. But my wife, Joanne—chairman of the board—made the observation that the real key to our work is tackling questions we’re really, really passionate about and encoded to answer. She said, “Don’t pick another question. Don’t rush into it. Wait until a question picks you.” And I waited. It took about two years. I was really afraid another question would never pick me, and I’d have one of these, “Remember eighteen years ago? Here’s the author of Built to Last.”
So, I waited in great fear. And one day I was having dinner with the people who run the San Francisco office of McKinsey & Company, and we were talking about organizational change, performance, and sort of the question that you’re talking about. Bill Meehan, who runs the San Francisco office of McKinsey, leaned over and said to me, “You know, we really loved Built to Last around here. You and Jerry did a great job with the research. And, unfortunately, it’s useless.”
“Tell me what you really think, Bill. I mean, you know, don’t hold back.”
He made a really interesting observation. He said, “If you look at the companies in Built to Last, they were never not great. HP had Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, who laid the foundations of greatness from the time they were a small company. George Merck, Walt Disney, Sam Walton, George Coffin at GE, Paul Galvin, R. W. Johnson at J&J—these companies had great parenting, and they started in life on the right trajectory and with the right genetics à la what we found in Built to Last.
The great irony of Built to Last is that it’s an entrepreneur’s book. It’s about how to start and build a great organization from the ground up. Even though it’s about large companies, it’s not about how to change them. And most people who’ve tried to directly apply the ideas of Built to Last to large organizations have not met with a lot of success because fundamentally they’re dealing with a different animal, which are good or mediocre enterprises that have never been great and do not have the genetics of greatness. In these cases, the ideas are more difficult to apply.
That was an interesting observation. And he said, basically, “What about the vast majority of organizations that are good but not great that need to change themselves? Your work sheds no light on that at all. It’s useless.”
So, I went home, sobered.
But I tried to make a list of companies that had shifted from good to great. Sustained mediocrity that had shifted to sustained superior performance. I couldn’t come up with any. He was absolutely right. I couldn’t see any initially in our study. Maybe there was one. But I went along with it and that planted the seed. And the question was, can that which is good or mediocre ever change itself to become great?