Reconsidering 'Good to Great'

I’ve heard some educators describe Guided Pathways as a framework to help institutions of higher education (IHEs) transition from “good to great.” They were alluding to the title of Jim Collin’s 2001 management book about how eleven companies went from, well, good to great. It doesn’t matter where I go—from K12 district offices to principal offices to higher education dean, vice president, and president offices—more often than not, Good to Great is on the bookshelf. It’s not difficult to spot. The cover is bright red with the title in bold letters. The book was required reading in many graduate programs, including mine. I’d like to challenge educators to think critically about this book because I’ve grown tired of some of the corporate sector management gurus, principles, and lingo in education. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate solid research methodology from any sector that demonstrates how organizations get results through a certain set of principles, framework, etc., and explore how all of this could apply to education. However, I don’t think educators have applied a deep critical lens to management fads to ask three key questions: What was the research methodology? What was the context? If applied to education, how do we study it to learn if it gets results for our context?

My first problem with Good to Great when it was released in 2001 was the title itself. I’m not a fan of the word 'great' to describe improvements models. The word is vague and can have different meanings. Most of all, 'great' denotes that something can’t improve. If anything, education systems are (or should be) about ongoing improvements. If schools and IHEs consider themselves great already, it tends to lead to a road of complacency and discourage a culture of continuous improvement. Guided Pathways requires IHEs to continually assess and redesign the ways they provide services to students.
'Great' denotes that something can’t improve.
My second problem with Good to Great is that it uses stock-market return as a measure of greatness. What does high performance on the S&P 500 (robust profit-making) have to do with education? Education is measured on student outcomes. Sure, there’s money involved in education but it’s not the end game. I’m not suggesting that principles that lead to higher profits can’t be explored for increasing student outcomes, but then here lies my third issue with the book.

My third problem with the book is that many of the companies that were lauded as “great” went bankrupt! When was the last time you shopped at Circuit City? Have you used Fannie Mae lately? Or how about Wells Fargo, one of the original eleven companies described in Jim Collin’s book. Is defrauding customers through fake accounts a sign of greatness? In fact, according to a September 2017 analysis by McKinsey & Company:

“We tracked the long-term fortunes of the 50 companies lauded in the seminal business books of the past three decades. What did we find? Take greatness with a grain of salt—even the greatest answer to trends and forces.” [1]

Consider the now defunct for-profit entity, Corinthian Colleges. Using profit as a measure of 'greatness,' Good to Great enthusiasts would have placed Corinthian in the 'great' column. Yet, what practices were they employing to reach high profitability? Lying to students. Some for-profit colleges went to the extent of intentionally targeting veterans with mental health issues and brain injuries to rob them of their GI Bill. Corinthian no longer exists, but significant damage was done because, above all, Corinthian viewed profits as a measure of greatness.

My last problem with Good to Great is the research methodology. Good to Great suffers from what is known as the “Halo Effect.”[1][2]  Basically, management books have a tendency to make specific inferences on the basis of a general impression. The research is based on ad hoc generalization, sampling on the dependent variable, and a host of other methodological flaws. In perhaps his most scathing criticism of management guru books such as Good to Great, management scholar Phil Rosenzweig stated:

“None of these studies is likely to win a blue ribbon at your local high school science fair.” [3] [4]

To be fair, Collins has since recognized some of the issues with his 2001 book and has written more about this subject. My point is that all of the years since the book's release, the term 'good to great' is still used extensively in education. I encourage educators to reconsider this term to describe frameworks such as Guided Pathways. Guided Pathways is not about being 'great.' Guided Pathways is about how to continuously improve the institution to prepare a dynamic student body for the ever-changing marketplace.

Guided Pathways is about how to continuously improve the institution to prepare a dynamic student body for the ever-changing marketplace.

For a related articles:

Guided Pathways: What it Means to Redesign the Institution

Unpacking the Meta-Major Concept

Guided Pathways: Starting on the Right Foot

Educators Beware: "Best Practices"

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  1. I agree with most of your comments, although I'm not sure that the paragraph describing your distaste for the word "great" is particularly strong. However, there are substantial differences between education institutions and corporations. I have no doubt that education institutions can learn a great deal from the experiences of successful corporations, but they can't mimick their practices. Fortunately, most administrators likely use "Good to Great" as mostly a conversation piece. I imagine few have actually read it and the number that have implemented its advice (as shaky as it is) is likely scant. In short, it's a hood ornament.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, John. Hood ornaments are a form of branding. Comprehensive initiatives, when implemented well, are like high performance vehicles. I'm encouraging educators to reconsider using a Yugo hood ornament :)


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