Why Good is Still the Enemy of Great for Most Colleges and Universities

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Series: Costs Down, Quality Up

Historically, initiatives to improve quality have also meant added cost—smaller class sizes, more faculty who conduct research, etc.—but this is no longer a sustainable model for all institutions. What are the innovations that can actually drive the cost to educate a student lower while driving critical outcomes like student success and completion higher? This series offers provocative questions that challenge the cost-quality paradigm and the old ways of managing institutional strategy and growth.

Why Good is Still the Enemy of Great for Most Colleges and Universities

Many small private colleges and universities knowingly or unknowingly are what could be called high-risk institutions. They lack huge endowments, a large reservoir of student demand, significant differentiation in the market, and high brand value. Many of these institutions are either implementing or contemplating a significant innovation and change strategy to address challenges related to a declining value proposition, a lack of differentiation, budgetary problems, and/or the development of new programs and markets that provide enrollment and revenue lifting power. These are the colleges and universities that most need to utilize a data-driven and evidence-based approach to culture, process and change. It is possible to turn the threats they face into windows of opportunity they initiate and control.

What is disturbing is that many stakeholders in some of the most vulnerable institutions are either satisfied with a false sense of security about their competitive positioning (they are contented with good) or are paralyzed by culture, process or leadership. This is why Collins and others since, have noted that “good is the enemy of great.”

“That good is the enemy of great is not just a business problem. It is a human problem. If we have cracked the code on the question of good to great, we should have something of value to any type of organization.”
Jim Collins, Good to Great

Educational innovation requires initiative, creativity, passion and courage. Many stakeholders at high-risk institutions cling to the status quo seeing it as a safer, comfortable, and less risky choice. They know what has worked in the past and are hopeful it will be sufficient for the future. The reluctance to support innovation and change in many small colleges and universities is generally a result of:

  • Falsely seeing themselves as a low-risk institution
  • Misjudging their capacity to make the jump in status to low-risk
  • They are paralyzed by a lack of leadership, campus politics or both.

But as noted above, a high-risk institution doesn’t have to capitulate. Their fight for long-term organizational success and sustainability can be achieved with appropriate focus and discipline. This is the approach highlighted by the Good to Great research.

Navigating through a high-risk environment requires making deliberate choices to:

  1. Build great leadership with creative and motivated people.
  2. Confront the brutal facts with disciplined thought based on evidence that informs what needs to be done.
  3. Create a culture of persistence and controls that leads to well-organized and well-executed action.

1. Build Great Leadership

Building great leadership is the responsibility of the board, the president and the senior leadership team. First, the board and campus community must choose the right president. Research indicates that high achieving organizations more often than not, select leaders who are ambitious first and foremost for the organization, not themselves. These leaders are highly results-oriented, display a compelling sense of modesty in attributing success to factors other than themselves, and unlike the norm in higher ed, they are leaders who were mostly selected from inside their organization.

Once the right executive leadership is in place, then it becomes the responsibility of the president and senior leadership to get the right people in the right positions of responsibility. It also starts with “first who, then what.” High achieving organizations have a record of getting the right people in the right positions and using that talent platform to vigorously debate the best answers in strategically moving the institution forward.

Other key lessons we can draw from the research:

  • When in doubt, don’t hire – keep looking. An organization should limit its growth based on its ability to attract enough of the right people.
  • When you know you need a people change, do it. But first be sure you don’t simply have someone in the wrong seat.
  • Trust your experience and instincts but always go with the best athlete. As Collins notes, hiring or placing the right person “has more to do with character traits and innate capabilities than with specific knowledge, background or skills.”
  • Put your best people on your biggest opportunities, not on your biggest problems. If you downsize the organization or stop doing something to create other opportunities, don’t let your best people go.

2. Confront the Brutal Facts

Many high risk colleges and universities never seem to confront the brutal facts. The path to survival and sustainability for many of these institutions requires an honest and diligent effort to determine the reality of their competitive status. But the denial and paralysis described above often clouds their capacity to engage and honestly confront the brutal facts.

High performing organizations share a set of best practices in developing a culture of transparency and truth telling that exposes these facts. This is an environment where people can actually be heard, and where honest and diligent efforts to determine situational truth often lead to decisions and strategies that are self-evident.

What are some best practices for building a climate and culture where the truth can be heard?

  • Start with questions, not answers. Instead of promoting a vision with all the answers, use the team to flesh out all of the questions that lead to the best possible insights.
  • Make good use of unscripted, informal meetings. Ask questions and create a forum where current realities can bubble to the surface.
  • Promote dialogue and debate, not pressure and intimidation. Avoid pre-determined decisions that lead to an unproductive buy-in process.
  • Do root-cause analysis of failures without assigning blame. Maximize organizational learning and the culture of truth telling.
  • Build “red flag” mechanisms that are early warnings and indicators that often point to the brutal facts. Turn data into information that can’t be ignored.

3. Create a Culture of Persistence and Controls

Navigating through a high-risk environment requires building a culture of discipline based on persistence and controls: self-disciplined people engaged in disciplined thought, who are disciplined in action and are prepared to never give up. But what drives disciplined thought and action? The answer lies in the intersection of what Collins calls the “three circles”: what you can be best at, what drives your economic engine, and what ignites the passion of your stakeholders. This intersection gets translated into a simple, clear and compelling concept that Collins calls the “Hedgehog Concept.” This becomes an institutional understanding of where the organization needs to place its focus. High achieving organizations display fanatical devotion in using these questions and developing the Hedgehog to inform their questioning process, dialogue and debate, executive decision-making, and analysis of outcomes.

If you have established a culture of persistence and controls, and have hired only self-disciplined people, you won’t need to manage them. This culture is a duality: it requires people who adhere to a consistent system, yet gives people freedom and responsibility. Now the focus centers on using the system and culture to best inform and create understanding on what you need to do and how to achieve it.

What does a culture of persistence and controls suggest?

  • Budget with a purpose. Identify the areas that best fit the “Hedgehog Concept” and aggressively direct new and re-allocated resources to supporting those initiatives.
  • Create a council. The “Hedgehog Concept” is an iterative progression, not an event. You need an ongoing council of the right people who dialogue and debate about vital issues and decisions facing the institution. This group should include a range of perspectives with key members of the leadership team and other people across the spectrum of the institution.
  • “Stop Doing” Lists are more important than “To Do” lists. It’s important to unplug all sorts of extraneous junk. As Collins notes, “once you know the right thing, do you have the discipline to do the right thing and, equally important, to stop doing the wrong things?”


Many of our institutions face external challenges that are not easily solved. This is why I am encouraging colleges and university stakeholders committed to a substantive innovation and change to look at the research, principles and recommendations found in the the Good to Great series. This is critical regardless of the state of your organization — whether you are meeting goals, achieving success, and experiencing “the hubris of Success”;  or facing challenges but still in “denial of risk and peril”; or “grasping for salvation,” trying to avoid “capitulation to irrelevance or death.” Whatever your state, there is evidence-based research that suggests that highly successful organizations consistently follow a set of principles that contribute to their success.

Let’s empower our colleges and universities to learn from the success of other organizations and other industries. To build on their experience and their examples on how to build great leadership with creative and motivated people, to confront the brutal facts with disciplined thought based on evidence, and to know what to do and to do it by creating a culture of persistence and controls that leads to well-organized and well-executed action.