Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I knew it all along

Occupational hazard, but I read a fair number of business books.

Most have been thrust upon me - at a corporate off-site, or through a publisher/publicist who wants me to blog about it. Even if the books generally aren't all that revelatory, and even if there is a depressing sameness about so many of them, most - even, I'll admit, the CEO puff-ographies - have something to say that's of interest, a decent enough point to make.

Having spent my full-time professional career largely in companies that are no longer among us, I've been especially interested in those books that purport to having divined the secret to corporate success.  But what can you make of classics like Tom Peters' In Search of Excellence, which profiled Wang as an example of the excellence he was searching for?

Sure, Wang - where I worked for a miserable 2 years, 7 months, and 14 days - had a brilliant founder and guiding force (An Wang), and some kickin' technology in its day. And, at one point in time (assuredly before I walked in the door), it may well have been excellent. But before In Search of was a decade old, it would have taken a business archeologist to go in search of Wang Labs, which had ceased to exist.

How excellent is that?

As I mentioned, most of the business books I've read do have something useful to say, but my experience has informed me that, while there are certain things (sins of omission, sins of commission) that will pretty much guarantee failure - and I have pretty much experienced them all - there's never anything I've been able to put my finger on that can actually guarantee success.  Even the companies I worked for that did the right thing at one point or another in their life cycle - were focused, had a coherent strategy and a plan to execute on it, had decent products, knew how to sell, treated and understood their customers well, provided value, etc. - didn't succeed. (Here my definition of succeed is not necessarily 'become a household name and make everyone rich', but the more humble and seemingly achievable definition of 'stayed in business long and well enough to go out on their own terms, and not get knocked down and acquired in a distress sale.')

The only thing I could ever put my finger on was that you really had to have some ration of luck (with timing being the biggest 'lucky-me' factor).

Now, it seems, there is a body of thought emerging that suggests that this is, in fact, the case.

This was discussed in a recent Boston Globe ideas column by Drake Bennett.  (And speaking of success and failure, The Globe's mothership, the New York Times Company, is threatening to close down The Globe in the next couple of days.)

Here's Bennett on books like In Search and Jim Collins' Good to Great,

While the particulars vary, the basic idea underlying the literature is the same: that the secrets of success can be divined by careful study of the institutional habits of the world's business all-stars - companies that set the standard for their industries, that thrive in tough times, companies that win the war for talent, companies that are built to last. In the imperturbable focus on core values of Hewlett-Packard or the restless innovativeness of Google or the ruthless accountability of GE, there are lessons for us all.

And here he introduces the revisionist theory:

But a few consultants and business school professors have begun to argue that much of this literature is, in fact, useless. Far from a science, they argue, the success literature is made up of little more than just-so stories in which authors use dramatic anecdotes - often drawn from previously published magazine profiles or interviews with the very executives whose performance is being examined - as evidence for "secrets" that amount to little more than warmed-over homilies. The critics accuse the success gurus of cherry-picking their evidence, of doing little to double-check their results, of circular reasoning, and of making elementary statistical errors.

Better yet, Bennett cites the work of Michael Raynor, a Deloitte Consulting researcher, who claims that if you really scrutinize the success of the companies studied in all these business-success books, what explains most of the success is plainly and simply luck.

Once a company has gotten lucky, it's easy to look back and ascribe their luck-based success to doing the right things - but maybe the unsuccessful, pathetically dysfunctional companies that didn't succeed were also doing things right. Why didn't they succeed?

In truth, I think that successful companies no doubt do have more than just luck going for them. And the companies I worked for sure as hell had more than bad luck going against them.  (I could write a book about it. Wait a minute. I did write a book.... ) But it was also generally the case that the companies I worked for lo those many years seldom experienced any good luck.

A lot of the bad luck seemed to revolve around having technology that was ahead of the market, and not having the wherewithal to create the market. Oh, sure, often we didn't have the wherewithal because we'd blown it on dumb stuff and no one would give us any more wherewithal. (Oh, boo-hoo.)

And there were other types of ill-luck: the economy tanked; a well-heeled competitor came in and ate us alive by underpricing to take our business; we ran out of runway; we were out and out screwed by something/someone/somewhere - some force over which we had no control.

I will have to take a closer look at Raynor's theories, and I thank Drake Bennett and the (possibly soon to be late and lamented) Boston Globe for introducing me to them. It certainly explains a lot, and I will now be able to sleep much easier at night knowing that I spent my career in companies that just plain flat-out lacked luck. (It wasn't me, after all.)


John said...

I think perhaps the best business book ever is John Micklethwait's "The Witch Doctors," from 1996, which argues that virtually all business books are utter nonsense. He deconstructs the most popular business books of the time, pointing out that the same business gurus jump from one theory of what makes success to another willy nilly. It's a good read. And it makes you less compelled to spend more of your time reading business books!

Audrey kitching said...

I love this book too, truly inspirational.

Business Books said...

Very inspirational, thank you.