Good to Great and the Social Sector, by Jim Collins

Book Review by Greg Stopka, Central Regional Director

May 2, 2013 | ARTICLE

Turn on the television and you are likely to hear a politician or a pundit express how government needs to become more business-like.  Jim Collins would disagree.

Many professionals are familiar with Jim Collin’s work Good to Great, but there are too many individuals who haven’t read his accompanying monograph, Good to Great and the Social Sector.  Collins premise is that professionals concerned with social sector cannot accept the notion that the primary success to greatness in government is become more business-like.  While he believes the good-to-great principles found in his main novel do apply to the social sector, the questions that arise are different than the private sector.  Collins synthesizes these questions into five areas:  1) “Define Great” 2) “Level 5 Leadership” 3) “Getting the Right People on the Bus” 4) “The Hedgehog Concept” 5) “Turn the Flywheel.”  Many of these concepts may sound familiar for those of you who have read Good to Great.  Jim Collins, however, has adapted them specifically to those who work in the public sector and is therefore required reading for those working in local government.

Collins begins by asking the question what does it mean to be great.  As Collins defines it, a great organization is one that delivers superior performance and a sustained distinct impact.  But greatness differs tremendously between government and business.  For a business, financial performance is a strong measure of performance but for the public sector, success must be measured around its mission and the effective use of resources.  The key is tracking progress.  By continuing to measure outputs with regards to outcomes, a public organization can go from good to great.

Collins next addresses the issue of “Level 5 Leadership.”  As described in Good to Great, “Level 5 Leadership” is about ensuring the right decisions are made for the long-term greatness of institutions.  In the private sector, the CEO has enough concentrated power to make decisions.  However, in the public sector, no individual leader has enough structural power to make similar decisions.  The “level 5 leader” in the public sector ensures that the right decisions are made even if they aren’t directly involved.  

The third area Collins raises is about “Getting the Right People on the Bus.”  In business, getting the right people on the bus is the challenge.  However, Collins suggests in government getting the wrong people off the bus can be even more important and challenging.  Early assessment is therefore more important for government than hiring mechanisms.

Collins calls his “hedgehog concept” the pivot point for a good organization to become great.  The “hedgehog Concept” pertains to organizational clarity about identifying what produces the best long-term results and then exercise discipline to avoid distractions that fail to do so (the hedgehog test).  The test for good-to-great companies is involves asking three questions:  1) What is the organization passionate about 2) What can the organization be the best in the world at 3) What drives your economic engine.  The key difference for public sector professionals is the third question.  The question isn’t how much money is made but how to develop a sustainable resource engine.  

The public sector leader needs to ensure that the resource engine if fueling what their community is passionate and proficient.

The last issue is about “turning the flywheel” or building organizational momentum. For public organizations, success is seen as results, which in turn attracts resources, and commitment, which in turn brings more success until an organization is “great.”

Collins’ addendum to Good to Great is best seen as a translator for the public sector to better utilize Collins’ book.  The key thought is that greatness is not about luck or circumstance but is about choice and discipline.  Local government can choose to be great, good, or average.   Good to Great and the Social Sector allows them to choose great.  It is a must-own for any local government manager.

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