2 books: “Guns, Germs & Steel”, and “Good To Great”

This August, as I was vacationing in Malta, I grabbed Guns, Germs & Steel at a bookstore in the airport. It is a fascinating book that explains how the European civilization basically ended up dominating the rest of the world.
After completing it, I dived into Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, another captivating essay that tells how some companies manage to reach a inflection point where they start making a lot more money than their competitors, and never go back to their previous mediocrity.

What is most intriguing to me is the parallel that can be drawn between each of these books, and the facilitating technique of the Five Whys.

The line of thought for the author of Guns… seems to have been the following:

The European civilization dominates the world.

  • Why? Because they have had stronger armies, more developed weapons and means of transportation, better writing skills, and deadlier germs.
  • Why? Because they have been able to support dense populations, a hierarchical society, scientists, scribes, and an environment where germs have multiplied.
  • Why? Because they have had plentiful food in terms of edible plants and useful animals; the later have brought germs along. All this earlier than competing societies.
  • Why? Because appropriate domesticated plants and animals where available nearby (mostly from the Fertile Crescent) in great numbers.
  • Why? Because fauna and flora were more rich and diverse.
  • Why? Because Eurasia is the largest continent, and has a West-East axis, which helps fauna and flora to spread out (climates varies less than on continents with a North-South axis), compete with each other, and develop more useful characteristics.

As a side note, not only the European civilization ended up dominating other continents, but the fauna brought along as well (this is a general statement; counter-examples do exist).

For Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, it goes more or less like that:

Some companies used to be mediocre, but at some point raised to greatness and never fell back. That, over a fairly a long period of time (more than 30 years).

  • Why? Because they are selling the right products.
  • Why? Because they have had an appropriate core concept of what they want to do, can do, and make money with in the long term
  • Why? Because they have thought long and hard, and then stuck to their core concept, no matter what
  • Why? Because they had the right people on board
  • Why? Because they had a “Level 5” Leader (a servant-leader, consistent and fearless); also, they did not have a high-profile, bigger-than-life leader that proves impossible to replace
  • Why? Mostly because someone was lucky enough in assigning this person as CEO

Of course, both chain of thought might strike as a bit simplistic. In a way, they are (though you’d better read the books first before judging them to quickly). For example, in Guns… the author admits that some additional explanations are required, for example the fact that Europe was geographically dispersed helped creating competing nations, as opposed to, say, China.

Still, they strike as reasonably good analysis of the main forces at work. Such depth of analysis is refreshing in a world where authors tend to serve ready-made solutions.

About Eric Lefevre-Ardant

Independent technical consultant.
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