Is Built to Last Falsifiable?

Following up on my preceding note, the current Fast Company also contains an interesting interview with Jim “Built to Last” Collins. In it he tries to dance around the whole subject of whether he can be legitimately criticized for lapses by the BTL (or “Good to Great”) list of companies:

Collins:BTL is not about these companies. Let me repeat that. That’s a really important point and if you don’t get that point, you don’t understand the work. BTL is not about these companies. Good to Great is not about the GTG companies. …

What is BTL about? It’s about discovering the timeless principles that make iconic companies that weave themselves into the fabric of the world. How did we discover those timeless principles? By discovering a set of companies that met that test at some point in their history and comparing them to what? To others that did not. So it doesn’t matter if you picked a different list today so long as the companies met that test and you did rigorous paired comparisons. You would get the same timeless principles. The companies would be different.

Do the laws of physics change? Does f=ma change if you derive it by looking at billiard balls or whether you derive it by dropping pens from the leaning tower of Pisa? You don’t go back and say f=ma no longer applies.

This is bizarre and fascinating logic. In other words, Collins argues that having derived some theories (“laws of physics”) inductively from data, he need not now fret if the underlying companies fail or otherwise founder. After all, he argues, he now has theories and he has riven above the mucky world of data.

Put in terms of Collins’ rhetorical question about billiard balls, while the laws of physics don’t change if you look at billiard balls versus dropped pens, there is an important caveat. If you suddenly find that the motion you are predicting for billiard balls (especially the ones you studied) no longer matches how they are currently caroming around then your laws of physics aren’t really laws at all. In other words, you are using the language of science for something essentially unscientific and ephemeral.

So is what Collins doing even falsifiable (and, therefore, appropriate for him to have even compared to laws of physics)? In other words, if he does not concede that failing BTL companies might prove him wrong, can he be proven wrong at all?

FC : You’ve likened BTL ‘s principles to physics. But it’s possible to prove physics wrongÂ…

Collins: Or right.

FC : Good point. So could someone ever prove BTL right or wrong?

Collins: …I think it’s unlikely that preserve the core/stimulate progress would be overturned in 50 years, because it’s such a deeply human, truthful insight about truly the way humans and systems work. I just don’t think it’s going to be overturned. It could be, I suppose. You could have simple enough evidence to subvert it. But I think with match-pair method and all that, I’m reasonably confident, I’d never say 100%, but reasonably confident.

I’ll tell you what I am worried about. I’m worried about what else we’re going to discover that will make it such that what we’ve found so far is only 10 or 20% of the equation. I’m not scared of preserve the core/stimulate progress or Level 5 leadership from GTG being overturned. I’m scared that they’re going to turn out to be so relatively insignificant compared to something we haven’t discovered yet.

In other words, Collins has no idea what it means to be falsifiable. And more broadly, his laws are so broad that they are, essentially, irrefutable. It is a good gig if you can get it, peddling unfalsifiable laws of physics at $55,000 a speech, despite billiard balls that periodically hop off the table all on their own.


  1. I never took the “analysis” of GtG (or BTL, which I haven’t read) as anything close to a presentation of a set of scientific postulates; I take the analysis as “inspiration”. No scientist ever get $55k per speech, no matter how important the science. Preachers probably do, though. IOW, it’s not about how valid the science is, it’s about how compelling the oratory and how inspirational you are.
    (It’s fun to read Good to Great and see all those references to Fannie Mae as such a stellar company while reading stories in the business sections explaining the house-of-cards nature of the shop).

  2. Yes, I hadn’t ever viewed the BTL/GTG postulates as being up there with the laws of physics either, hence my surprise at Collins arguing as much, as least metaphorically. It seems that is how Collins views his stuff, so given his $55,000 a gig comp of pitching these “laws” I figure it’s only fair to hold him to a higher standard.
    Anyway, read management books for the ready-to-retail stories, not the “rules”. That’s my view, and I’ll stick to it 😉

  3. Its fair to say the books were based on a one-time incarnation of a firm. How can Collins predict the future?

  4. He can’t. That’s why I’m baffled that he insists that his books are anything other than pleasant stories about particular companies at a particular point in time.