Category: Leadership


The trouble with being SMART

January 30th, 2016 — 1:41am

2016 is here. Worldwide, managers are setting SMART – Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely – performance goals. Even though the underlying theory – Management by Objectives (MBO)– has lost credence, this catchy mnemonic, which George Doran coined in 1981, has not. The time is upon us to retire SMART for all managers and executives from whom we need discretionary effort.

MBO lost credence because “The boss knows best” paternalism no longer works well. Global companies are transforming structurally to free emerging businesses from top-down strictures. Open source communities, coordinated by respect for expertise, not central authority, are creating technologies and products. Innovative workplaces are giving employees time off the clock and free resources, and benefitting from their unmeasured, untracked tinkering. Such environments thrive on distributed leadership and decentralized, uncounted action, and SMART goals can’t add to, and inevitably subtract from, them.

The problems with SMART run deeper and can damage even organizations that don’t need to unbundle business units or use open source approaches. The business environment has fundamentally changed. Companies no longer compete individually, but as members of networks: Apple couldn’t create the iPhone, or Airbus the A350 aircraft, without collaborating with others. Network members may be located half a world away, and inevitably have their own strategies, processes and cultures. So, complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity abound, which allow problems and opportunities flash across these networks with blinding speed, meaningfully affecting performance. SMART goals implicitly assume staid environments that are far removed from these realities and can keep executives from responding appropriately.

Problems with SMART arise from virtually all elements of the acronym. ‘Specific’ goals, clear-cut and definite, are easy to articulate and act on. They enable quick assessments of individuals’ successes. However, when used extensively, they reduce discretionary activity and limit broader action. I once facilitated a meeting between two groups of senior executives, each from a well-known global company, whose businesses had merged. One group described how its corporate values drove performance evaluation and gave it freedom to act. The other retorted that its values were the five tasks set for each by his/her boss; each manager could, and did, decline to work on any initiative unless specifically tasked to do so. Guess which company had acquired the other? Guess which one’s stock price has usually outperformed the other’s?

‘Measurable’ goals have become an unshakeable article of faith, commonly justified by physicist Lord Kelvin’s dictum, “If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.” Such goals make it is easy to decide not just whether someone has performed, but how well. In so doing, they implicitly emphasize efficiency (doing something optimally, even if it is the wrong thing) over effectiveness (doing the right thing, which may be hard to discern). To make this point, I often ask senior executives to identify a single factor whose absence would destroy their businesses. They inevitably – and quickly – converge on ‘Trust.’ They are right – how much would you get done if you had to personally check every single word you were told? I then ask, “How do you measure trust?” They don’t – and can’t: this critical driver of business success is immeasurable. Instead of spouting Lord Kelvin out of context, executives should internalize the words attributed, perhaps aphoristically, to Albert Einstein: “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

Since ‘Achievable’ may produce inadequate outcomes, many companies set ‘Ambitious but achievable’ goals. Regardless, this criterion disregards our knowledge about human motivation. As Daniel Pink has brilliantly summarized in a YouTube video popular in business schools, carrot-and-stick approaches improve performance only when work is physical. Intellectual work benefits from allowing people to develop mastery in a field and giving them the autonomy to act therein. So, the quintessential carrot-and-stick nature of Achievable goals limits their relevance to managers. To drive supernormal performance, we should instead give people responsibility for accomplishment, and allow them to set their own targets consistent with organizational goals.

Goals are supposed to be ‘Relevant’ – not just to the organization, given its environment – but also to specific individuals and groups for whom they are set. The first criterion is undoubtedly reasonable, and on a prima facie basis, so is the second: why set a goal that isn’t applicable to, or deliverable by, the people in question? In reality, ‘relevance’ inevitably results in an enduring, widespread problem: organizational silos that hinder collaboration. For example, a sales team accountable for customer satisfaction is likely to have conflicts with a supply network team accountable for minimizing inventory. However, these silos would collaborate in their own interest if each was assessed (in part) on the other’s accountability – in effect measuring them for something that wasn’t relevant to their daily work.

How could ‘Timely’ not be legitimate? Very simply because it has become code for “as soon as possible.” We have made a virtue of speed to the exclusion of every other meaningful, and important organizational goal. Business textbooks assign critical importance to “first mover advantage” even though irrefutable examples of its falseness are readily available. When was the last time Apple launched a truly first-in-the world product? Was Google the first search company? Was Facebook the first social media offering in its niche? How are Chinese and Indian multinationals, Johnny-come-latelies to international markets, giving established Western firms a run for the money? When ‘timely’ equates to solely to speed, creativity, effectiveness and yes, even efficiency, suffer, sometimes irreparably.

What should executives do? They should reserve SMART goals solely for people who have limited discretion. For everyone else, they should begin goal setting with non-specific, qualitative, “can’t be done” diffuse and “time is one of several criterions” goals that give people autonomy and mastery. Indeed, they should urge them to propose goals for themselves. They should add SMART goals, only where they are truly unavoidable, and there too, with enough fudge-factors to ensure they don’t become limiting or constraining.

In effect, throughout the goal setting process, they should ask themselves: Am I paying attention to issues that truly matter? Am I truly leading an organization of people, or am I merely checking boxes to show that my job matters? Being SMART is easy, but that doesn’t make it right.

———

A shorter version was published by Forbes on January 12: http://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesleadershipforum/2016/01/12/it-may-be-time-to-get-rid-of-smart-management/#2715e4857a0b6e160d5e3bbc

Comment » | Business Tools, Company Performance, Corporate Culture, Leadership

Grokking Jobs on Campus

September 1st, 2011 — 2:01pm

I’ve been Executive in Residence at Babson College since January. As Fall creeps up on New England (You’re beautiful, but can you please stay away for a little longer?) and students return, my thoughts are a continent away, at two other campuses: The California Institute of Technology and the Apple campus in Cupertino.

This summer, I learnt of a Caltech lore: When Apple visits Caltech to recruit undergraduates in computer science, it brings an open checkbook. Even unreasonable salary expectations don’t preclude the hiring of those whom it likes. Initially, the story seemed inconsequential.

Then, a few days ago, Steve Jobs resigned his position as Apple’s CEO. Apple’s iconic co-founder has reportedly lived a decidedly iconoclastic life, at least in comparison with those of the CEOs of most global companies. He dropped out of college, but living on friends’ sofas, continued to attend classes he liked. So exposed to calligraphy, he incorporated a range of fonts, not just Pica and Elite, on the original Macs. He then dropped out altogether went to an ashram in India, from where he returned a Buddhist. He embraced counter-culture and reportedly regards his doing so a critical formative experience. In short, as a young man, he was the complete antithesis of the people that Apple is seemingly hiring at Caltech.

I am not begrudging the Caltech seniors, particularly those who have worked diligently, their high-paying jobs! Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of these events raised in my mind a critical question for Apple and a more general one for businesses and academia. The roots of these questions lie in an amazing interview Jobs gave to Wired magazine in 1996, before he returned to Apple. In part, he said:

“Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. The design of the Mac wasn’t what it looked like, although that was part of it. Primarily, it was how it worked. To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really grok what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that.

(Jobs probably used the word grok very deliberately; if you don’t grok it, read Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.)

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

“Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

I wonder if those responsible for on-campus hiring at Apple have grokked this interview. People have long debated Apple’s ability to create lifestyle-altering experiences in a post-Jobs era. A die-hard Apple fan, I had no doubts it could – if it institutionalized Jobs’ perspective on design. (I call this making of the “private knowledge of an individual the public knowledge of many” organizational learning.) However, if Caltech’s lore is true (and broadly representative), Jobs’ insights haven’t become organizational. This won’t be a problem tomorrow, but will be when the individuals so hired rise to managerial positions. Will they prize staff who lack deep knowledge but who, by virtue of their life experiences and broad knowledge, can connect seemingly unconnectable dots?

More broadly, in a world that prizes “deep, micro-knowledge” more than “broad, macro-knowledge,” how do we produce great designers, managers, and indeed, leaders? How do we ensure people are, in Jobs’ words, “able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

I am not arrogant enough to believe I have the answer, but will leave you with a proposal. For college students, I’d make a “semester abroad” a requirement, not an option. And an American going to Western Europe (or vice versa) wouldn’t count.

What do you think?

Comment » | Corporate Culture, Design, Education, Leadership

The Duel of the Physicists

April 11th, 2011 — 3:21pm

Peruse any forum on business and sooner or later, you will find a discussion on the value of metric-based performance appraisals. Almost inevitably, you will also find a reference, attributed or not, to Lord Kelvin’s famous dictum, “If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.” (Here’s one example: Metrics, metrics, metrics. “If you don’t measure it, it won’t happen.”) Finally, you’ll also probably note that the discussion’s initiator heavily favors measuring. In my example, the next lines read, “Do you believe that every department/function and employee should have measurable goals? Can you share your successes?” Quite possibly, because of this aphorism, Lord Kelvin is better known to managers than physicsts.

Now consider Albert Einstein. True, he wasn’t a “Lord”, but surely his various other achievements compensate for this deficiency? He said, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” As managers and students of management, if we must turn to physicists for insights, can we not cite him with equally often? We don’t and this is sad, for we need this particular insight very, very badly. Consider just two examples:

In a world in which most businesses rely on others for core products and services, as a manager you rely on work done by people you don’t know, who work for other companies with different goals, cultures, and risk tolerances. Here, you have two choices: You can base your hopes for a mutually beneficial relationship on tightly structured, measurable Service Level Agreements that your teams of lawyers can help enforce. Or, recognizing that if you have to rely on lawyers to enforce the relationship, you can’t possibly succeed at it, you could choose to invest in building a a level of mutual trust (which you could never measure) which would smooth the imperfections of your “good enough” SLA.



How about innovation? How many of the greatest products or services you use today (or those that were used in the past) were created in workplaces that operated under the philosophy, “If you don’t measure it, it won’t happen?” Some of the most innovative workplaces of the world have long given employees free “off the clock” time and free resources – and benefited from the results of the unmeasured, untracked tinkering they did.

One and even two generations ago, the doyen of quality, Edward Deming, tried to use statistics to convince managers that measuring the performance of individuals often made no sense. Most weren’t willing to consider this advice. Now they need to follow it more than they did then. (And no, Google’s recent efforts, to which I will devote a separate post soon, doesn’t obviate this opinion.)


Metrics and measures have a place in business, just not a central one. A manager who firmly ascribes to “If you don’t measure it, it won’t happen” will most likely make sure only one thing will definitely happen: he/she will be outperformed by those who understand that at the very least, not all statements about physics should be applied to management, and more correctly, management is most definitely not physics.

3 comments » | Business Tools, Leadership

The Joys and Perils of Dancing on a Knife’s Edge

February 25th, 2011 — 11:09am

The tumultuous crowds that brought down a dictator in Egypt had an unintended impact far from their homeland: they drowned out – rightfully! – the announcement of a strategic partnership between Nokia and Microsoft. I admire the Nokia I researched; yet I acknowledge it is currently in deep trouble. I have long disdained Microsoft for its product quality and its reliance on monopolistic power instead of innovation (sole exceptions: Xbox and Kinect; and yes, I admit that Office 2011 for the Mac is far better than iWorks!). So, what do I think of this alliance?

A key “prerequisite” question is: Do I still believe the ideas in The Spider’s Strategy? Absolutely! Toyota’s “unexpected acceleration” fiasco and its resultant recalls of millions of cars didn’t discredit Lean Enterprise. Why then, should Nokia’s recent challenges discredit Networked Organizations? Indeed, Nokia got into trouble because in the key area of product innovation, it stopped applying the ideas that powered its 17% compounded annual organic growth rate (in revenues and operating profits) from 1995 to 2006.

Nokia violated a subtle rule embedded in my third Design Principle, “Value and nurture organizational learning.” It used to learn rapidly by setting seemingly impossible targets that demanded the periodic reinvention its business model. Simultanneouly, to keep control, it insisted its managers follow a “no surprises” policy. This brilliant rule is the proverbial knife’s edge. Balance well, and you can pull off miracles. Tilt toward “big risk” and you can lose your shirt. Tilt toward “no suprises” and you will bring innovation to a screeching halt. As it grew, Nokia made the mistake many other large companies have: it tilted toward “no surprises.” So, unlike Apple, it didn’t build a network of complementary product makers to buttress its proprietary Symbian software. Unlike Google, it didn’t attract a different type of sustaining network by making Symbian open source – until it was too late.

The alliance with Microsoft was in the cards from the day Nokia’s Board appointed Stephen Elop CEO. Nokia’s press release spoke of a strategy to “build a new global mobile ecosystem” with Windows Phone software at its core; “capture volume and value growth to connect ‘the next billion’ to the Internet in developing growth markets;” and make “focused investments in next-generation disruptive technologies.”

The second element – a continued focus on markets like India and China – is an key, though the notoriously developed-world-focused financial analysts may not care. Apple has ignored these markets and Windows still has a true monopoly among operating systems. These facts, plus Nokia’s still dominant marketshare there, give the alliance a strong base on which it can build; Nokia can instantly create volume for the Windows Phone and a seemless integration with Wintel computers may give it an edge over low cost Chinese phone makers. At the very least, this element will buy the alliance time; at best, the “next billion” is a huge market. That’s where the first element is also critical.

To bring the alliance value, the goal of building a mobile ecosystem must truly assimilate the lesson of a recent The New York Times story about a start-up company that hoped to build a business around enabling group dates. The founders noted that the site’s users were mostly South or East Asians, but filed that fact away as “Interesting, but Unimportant.” Success came only when they reluctantly acknowledged that group dating wouldn’t fly in the US and shifted their focus to India. The world, as Thomas Freidman said, is flat. But that doesn’t mean people’s needs are the same everywhere. That’s why the word “global” in the language of this strategic element is troubling. Its use may seduce financial analysts, but unless an ecosystem to specific markets, it won’t amount to a hill of beans. At one time Nokia knew this lesson; it had had anthropologists in Indian villages whose work strengthened its market position there. Does it still remember that lesson and can it convince a monopoly to learn it too?

The third element is critical for the long term and most troubling: Will two companies who haven’t created any disruptive technology recently be able to do so in the near future? Nokia’s Chairman Jorma Ollila had championed the Networked Organization philosophy and as CEO, had managed its phenomenal growth. I could make a cogent case that he and the Board had no choice but to create the alliance with Microsoft. (Which would explain why they pursued Mr. Elop in the first place.) Now, he must ensure that Mr. Elop realizes that his most critical tasks are (1) putting into leadership positions those within Nokia who are still capable of dancing gracefully on a knife’s edge and (2) using his deep knowledge of Microsoft to convince Mr. Ballmer to do the same. Then, and only then, will the alliance succeed. If so, I may one day become once again an enthusiastic customer of both companies.

Comment » | Business Environment, Company Performance, Corporate Culture, Leadership

‘Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?’

January 12th, 2011 — 2:48pm

On January 10th, I was driving to a business school to lead a symposium on leadership in a networked world. On the radio, I heard the debate about whether the vitriol common in American politics today triggered the carnage in Tucson, Arizona on January 8th. (A man had attacked a centrist US Congresswoman; she is recovering from a serious bullet wound to her head, while six others are dead and twelve more are wounded.)

Some people – typically those on the political left – decried the language used by those on the right. Their Exhibit A was a map Sarah Palin, their bête-noir, put up before the recent US mid-term elections: it had a marksman’s crosshairs drawn on 20 congressional districts (including Ms. Giffords’) held by the Democrats. Others – typically those on the political right – accused the left of politicizing a tragedy. The killer didn’t belong to any right wing group, and quite possibly was psychotic. Words and images like Ms. Palin’s map were merely rhetorical political devices, not incitements to violence; linking these to a psychotic’s actions was wrong.

I considered focusing the symposium on the link between words and action. Ultimately, I chose not to; this issue was key to leadership, but not necessarily to the concept of a networked world. What would I have said if I had made a different decision? Without a doubt, I would have begun with the words in the title to this post.

Henry II, King of England and a part of today’s France, supposedly uttered them from a sickbed. (Other records suggest that he said, “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?”) The priest in question was Thomas Beckett, his one-time closest friend and confidant, who as Archbishop of Canterbury, had successfully blocked a key law Henry championed. Four of Henry’s knights acted on his words. In one version of what happened next, they went to Canterbury to kill Beckett and succeeded. In another version, they went to arrest Beckett, but backed off and went to bed when he resisted. The next day, they again tried to drag Beckett out of the cathedral. Somehow Beckett got hit on his head. This accident triggered bloodshed: the knights then drew their swords and slew him.

Henry might simply have been delirious – or merely frustrated – when he spoke. In doing so, whether he intended it or not, he set in motion Beckett’s assassination. The four knights were not mentally ill; they acted deliberately to please their lord. They might not have intended to commit murder, but even in the passion-of-the-moment version of the events, by-standers became “collateral damage.” In either version, I doubt they would have acted against “God’s personal representative in England” had they not felt that their lord was implicitly urging them to do so.

Far from issues of life and death, the essential lesson of this story for any business manager is simple: Words of those in positions of authority always have consequences, even if they aren’t immediately palpable. This lesson is valid for positive words as well, and most annoyingly, for words – positive and negative – that aren’t spoken when they could have been.

Why? Because most people try to fit into their chosen group. Because they value praise from their superiors. Because they try to find meaning for the humdrum of their daily work. Because they routinely look to their superiors’ words for cues about what they should do. Because they analyze whom a new boss speaks to first; if he/she talks to them, they conclude they have been anointed, but if he/she talks to someone they consider incompetent, they conclude the boss has “been captured by the wrong people.”  Because they read much into whom their boss has lunch with, ignoring the fact that the lunchtime companion may merely be an old friend. Much of this scrutiny is way over the top, but there is no escaping from the fact that it happens every day in every organization, including informal ones.

So, if you aspire to positions of authority or leadership, teach yourself to be very careful about the words you use. Conversely, if you don’t accept – or don’t want to live by – this lesson, don’t seek positions of authority or leadership. You certainly shouldn’t be given such a position, for you will have the potential to do enormous damage.

Finally, it is worth noting that both the right and the left in today’s debate are wrong. The right is disclaiming a link for which there is tons of evidence. The left is applying the link way beyond what is reasonable: The issue is not vitriol per se, but its source. Identical words spoken by two people will have divergent impact, if one is an average citizen and the other, someone with a substantial following. The words the latter uses in difficult and/or emotionally charged situations can give us insight into whether he/she has the capacity for greatness or whether he/she merely is a power hungry mortal. Unfortunately, instead of using such situations as guides, we convince ourselves that, everyone, without restriction, who is on “our side” is capable of greatness, while everyone, without restriction, who is on “their side” is a power hungry mortal.

My best wishes for this New Year. May it rise beyond the horrific sights from Tucson.

Comment » | Leadership, Politics

The Michael Crichton Strain

January 29th, 2010 — 11:01am

Michael Crichton was the author who ensured that English speaking children know – and can perfectly pronounce – the names of at least ten dinosaurs. I read the first of his 26 novels, The Andromeda Strain, in 1976 and several others – including the ones about dinosaurs, Jurassic Park and The Lost World – in subsequent years. He also created the extremely popular TV show ER; I didn’t see even a single episode of the show. He passed away in November 2008.

I liked reading his books because many, if not all, of them dealt with the complexities of a world I knew well: the intersection of advanced technology and business. However, I am definitely not a “Crichton groupie;” I stopped reading him in the early 1990s, because I felt that his 1992 book, Rising Sun, had racist undertones. This decision means that Mr. Crichton may well have held positions about which I know absolutely nothing.

Mr. Crichton’s writings introduced me to an extraordinarily powerful idea: humans are creating ever more complex technological systems without truly understanding their implications. They think they can completely control these, but the reality is they can’t. For example, consider the following extract from a speech on environmentalism, as it is reported on “Michael Crichton, The Official Site”: “Most people assume linearity in environmental processes, but the world is largely non-linear: it’s a complex system. An important feature of complex systems is that we don’t know how they work. We don’t understand them except in a general way; we simply interact with them. Whenever we think we understand them, we learn we don’t. Sometimes spectacularly.”

I couldn’t help but be reminded of this idea when the news about Toyota’s ever-expanding recall came into the public spotlight. How could a company so admired and emulated falter so badly? One explanation is that the Company’s relentless pursuit of growth over the last decade caused it to take its eye off quality. Toyota’s new CEO, Akio Toyoda, shares this view; when he got the job in October 2009, he apologized profusely in public for the quality problems that Toyota had experienced. As time would tell, those were nothing compared to what’s happening right now. (I will return to this explanation in a future post.)

A second possible explanation drove me to introduce Michael Crichton here: we are building cars so complex that we really don’t understand how they function and why they do what they do. So far, no one knows what ails the Toyotas. Is it a mechanical problem with the accelerator pedal made by the US company CTS? These pedals are being replaced not just on Toyota but also on other cars. But even Toyota doesn’t think this is the key explanation. Mechanical problems are generally easy to diagnose because we can actually see what’s wrong. The “improper floormats” explanation is also, at best, a secondary one. Right now, the focus seems to be on the electronics that control acceleration – and possibly, even the embedded software. Yet no one has yet figured out what this problem is. So, unless the real story has not been made publicly available (which is always possible), this explanation is still speculation; perhaps informed speculation, but speculation nevertheless.

Many years ago, I had started writing – and then abandoned – a book on manufacturing. In that effort I had assailed the belief that some software companies popularized in the 1990s: “Get it 80% right and ship.” Customers will tell you what is wrong – and you can fix it then. An incredibly simplistic belief in the power of being first to market drove this view. I hope it gets buried soon, for Apple is only the latest company to show that first mover advantages are highly overrated.) Couple this view with Mr. Crichton’s lesson and the dangers of following it become immediately obvious.

In 2006/2007, I was writing The Spider’s Strategy. I pointed out that the holy grail of modern product development – “make it modular” – had major limits. Companies like modularity because it gives (1) the flexibility to use the same parts in different places and (2) the ability to outsource design and manufacturing work in discrete chunks. I cited examples of product failures that had afflicted some of the best known brands in the world, including Toyota and argued that the weakness of this thinking lay in the electronics and software. This limitation made it essential for companies to collaborate closely with their design and manufacturing partners.

Toyota understood this fact better than most other companies. This is why it focused on building strong partnerships with its suppliers. Those partnerships had helped it make the jump from a Lean company to a networked company. It is truly sad that along the way somehow its management unlearnt this critically important lesson.

Comment » | Company Performance, Corporate Culture, Leadership

What Took You So Long, Mr. Whitacre?

December 9th, 2009 — 2:40pm

Edward Whitacre, the Chairman of the Board of GM, has been very active during the last few days. On December 1, he – formally GM’s Board – fired CEO Fritz Henderson. An Associated Press article in The New York Times reported on opinions expressed by two – unnamed – people who were close to Mr. Henderson. It noted that “…the board upset that the automaker’s turnaround wasn’t moving more swiftly and Henderson frustrated with second-guessing …” The same people also suggested that “[Henderson has] was frustrated from the beginning by the board and government push for faster change and other questions about his decisions.” Mr. Whitacre has taken on the task of interim CEO while the Board searches for a replacement. In all likelihood, he/she will be from outside the industry.

Three days after making this decision, Mr. Whitacre appointed a new management team. He reached down into the senior middle management cadre and appointed Mark Reuss, a recent GM for Australia and a newly appointed VP for Engineering, GM for North America. He expanded the responsibilities of three women executives and sidelined Robert Lutz, the Vice Chairman who ran product development and who had hinted publicly that he would be replacing Mr. Henderson. In a public statement about these decisions, Mr. Whitacre noted that GM’s top heavy management was stifling good mid-tier managers, and he wanted to “… give people more responsibility and authority deeper in the organization, and hold them accountable.”

Of course I cheered! In this blog, last December (“What’s Good for General Motors is Good for America”) I wrote, “… this company cannot be trusted to reform itself …” and listed five conditions that the US government should ask for in return for bailing out GM. These included: “Mr. Wagoner and his top lieutenants must resign in an orderly fashion …;” “ … over the next five years GM … must be reduced in size, so they are no longer ‘too big to fail.’ This will require mandatory spin-offs of relatively independent businesses …;” and “…no one in the top spots in any of the restructured companies should come from the senior-most ranks of these companies …”

Then, in January (“Marie Antoinette’s Soulmate”), I tore into Mr. Lutz: “If anyone has any doubts about why GM is really flirting with bankruptcy, Mr. Lutz comments (during an NPR interview) should have clarified the issue. The Vice Chairman of a company which went with a begging bowl to Congress acted as if he was Marie ‘Let them eat cake’ Antoinette’s soul mate. CEO Rick Wagoner and GM’s Board should have repudiated his statements by publicly firing him …” I also opined that a pre-arranged bankruptcy would not solve GM’s core problem. During the negotiations, I said, “No one will be focusing on changing the culture that allow people like Mr. Lutz to be top dogs. And without changing culture – encouraging collaboration, being open to others’ ideas, being willing to take considered risk, managing learning every day, etc. – these companies will stumble from one disaster to another. Changing culture takes great effort, committed leadership and time. All three will be in short supply during the negotiations …” I added, “I would like to see … an orderly departure of people like Rick Wagoner and Bob Lutz, and a shifting of power to less jaded executives running smaller companies created by splitting up the behemoths.”

Then in April (“The King is Dead! Long Live the King”), I challenged the criticism made of the firing of Rick Wagoner: “Imagine, for a moment, that a President of the US (… ‘POTUS’) was at the end of an eight year tenure and he … had not been able to turn around the economy. Would you call him a failure? Sure you would! Mr. Wagoner has been CEO for 8 years; prior to that he was GM’s CFO, President of North American Operations, and COO. A comparable track record in US national politics would have been Secretary of Treasury, (a hands on) Vice President and then POTUS. In effect, Mr. Wagoner had many more then 8 years to fix GM. Under the circumstances, the fact that he might have ‘made progress,’ is simply not good enough!” I ended that post with, “The King is dead. I hope the new King – or kings, as I have argued earlier – come from middle ranks or better yet, from outside the industry.”

So, Mr. Whitacre has made many of the executive changes I wanted. Hopefully, the new blood will transform GM’s ossified culture and structure and take the strategic steps I suggested. As long as Mr. Henderson was the CEO, there was no hope of this happening. His concern that the Board was pushing too hard indicates that he, like Mr. Wagoner, would have found eight years too short for reforming GM.

Now there is hope that at least some of the money the US government used to bail out GM will be returned.

Comment » | Company Performance, Corporate Culture, Leadership, Organizational structure, Politics

“Stargazer, you with your head in the heavens …”

November 28th, 2009 — 2:05pm

Around this time every year, American manufacturers and retailers fill the airwaves with countless advertisements. A couple of days ago, I saw many from Toyota, touting the legendary quality of its cars. But for the first time in a long while these sounded hollow. Toyota has just announced yet another recall – affecting four million cars – for possible uncontrollable acceleration. The problem has resulted in a few deaths. I immediately told my wife, “This is Toyota’s “Audi moment.”

In the 1980s, Audi’s slogan was “The art of engineering” and its cars were doing very well in the premium/luxury segment. One year, some customers complained about accidents at start up; the cars moved before the drivers wanted to, often causing accidents. Audi denied the problem and blamed driver error. The media picked up the story and ultimately, the US government mandated a new safety feature for all cars: one cannot shift the gear to ‘Drive’ or ‘Reverse’ without having a foot on the brake. But by that time, Audi’s sales had plummeted – if I recall correctly – from about 50,000 a year to under 10,000. Audi’s reputation didn’t recover for many years.

I have long admired Toyota’s management prowess, and praised some of its policies and experiences in The Spider’s Strategy and in this blog. However, Toyota has clearly not learnt from Audi’s experiences. It first denied the problem and then blamed its customers. When it – very belatedly – acknowledged the issue, it said that the accelerator pedal was getting stuck on the mat and said that it would retrofit the existing pedals.

Toyota’s response is far from appropriate. It won’t be able execute the retrofitting till April 2010. What are the legions of Toyota customers supposed to do till then? Help slow global warming by not driving? Moreover, not everyone is convinced that the pedals are at fault; many blame a software malfunction. (This isn’t far fetched; in The Spider’s Strategy, I described earlier software problems in Toyota – and other high end cars – as one of the motivations for networked companies.) Toyota disagrees sharply – but nevertheless, is changing the software in some cars.

Toyota’s advertisements, reminded me of a Neil Diamond song: “Stargazer, you with your head in the heavens / You’ll never get by walkin’ that high off the ground / Moon dreamer, I’ve been around and I’ve seen it / The higher you get – the harder they let you down / You pay your dues, it seems forever /And if you’re clever you may be in for a while / Then you’re out of style/” I wondered why its executives didn’t realize that since quality is their claim to fame, a plausible challenge of that capability can be devastating. I also mused about the appropriateness of focusing advertisements on quality while a major recall is the lead news item on the evening news. Finally, I pondered why good executives don’t understand that blaming large numbers of customers is always a losing strategy in a crisis. Perhaps it is because they forget – with their “head in the heavens” – that they can’t afford to be “walkin’ that high off the ground.”

Only time will tell if Toyota is “out of style” now, having been “in for a while” because of its earlier “cleverness.” Recently, its new CEO, Akio Toyoda, apologized abjectly to shareholders and customers for Toyota’s many recent failings and vowed to return to policies that had made it one of the most admired companies in the world.

Great (Adaptive) companies do make mistakes, just like lesser ones. What distinguishes them is what they do next. They acknowledge their mistakes, quickly correct them and determine how to obviate the entire class of such mistakes in the future. Mr. Toyoda, the ball’s in your court.

1 comment » | Company Performance, Corporate Culture, Leadership

The King is Dead! Long Live the King!

April 1st, 2009 — 9:51am

Night before last, I was watching AC 360, the Anderson Cooper news show on CNN. Anderson asked David Gergen, the former advisor to four presidents and current member of CNN’s team of political analysts, and two others, about the summary dismissal of Rick Wagoner. Mr. Gergen was generally supportive of the government’s position, but was critical of the fact that the government had forced Mr. Wagoner out, given that he had made progress in transforming GM.

Well, readers of this blog probably anticipate my reaction well: Firing Mr. Wagoner was not only necessary, but essential. So, let me take on the David Gergen’s argument. Imagine, for a moment, that a President of the US (whom I’ll henceforth refer to by the customary acronym POTUS) was at the end of an eight year tenure and he (think of Mr. Obama for now) had not been able to turn around the economy. Would you call him a failure? Sure you would!

Mr. Wagoner has been CEO for 8 years; prior to that he was GM’s CFO, President of North American Operations, and COO. A comparable track record in US national politics would have been Secretary of Treasury, (a hands on) Vice President and then POTUS. In effect, Mr. Wagoner had many more then 8 years to fix GM. Under the circumstances, the fact that he might have “made progress,” is simply not good enough! He has not delivered on the most important issues – GM’s culture, organization and strategy – and indeed, according to published reports chose to bypass these fearing that they would keep him from improving GM’s cost structure.

One of the other guests on the CNN program, an economist who supported the firing, pointed out that GM and Chrysler are so large that they account for almost 2% of America’s GDP. Consider this data point from a different perspective. We want our POTUS to turn around 100% of the GDP (while battling non-economic problems like wars, natural disasters,) and — by recent public criticism — do it in his first 100 days. Yet, we are OK with a very highly paid executive not being able to turn around a company in eight years that is only about 1% of the GDP?

Focusing an 8+ year role at the top on labor costs is leadership? Not in my books. Labor accounts for only about 8% of the cost of a car and on a global basis, as economist and journalist Ben Stein has pointed, even this cost is not wildly uncompetitive. But wait, he hired Bob “Mary Antoinette’s Soulmate” Lutz as Vice Chairman for Product Development and they turned out a few good cars, did they not? A few cars among how many? And what did GM do on core new technology? Oh yes, it caterwauled about unreachable mileage standards. Surely they were producing cars for Europe, where generally the laws are tougher and an End of Vehicle Life law already exists demanding near total recyclability?

No, the issues Mr. Wagoner chose to bypass – GM’s culture, organization and strategy – are the ones which could have saved the company. Had he broken down the Not Invented Here silos that existed within geographic and brand specific fiefdoms, he would have transferred innovations faster. Heck Saturn’s “no haggling” policy could have transformed the industry, instead of remaining a niche strategy. But that would have meant engaging with GM’s vast network of dealers in a new way. Think this does not matter? Then consider this: a couple of months back Hyundai came up with a brilliant idea to stimulate sales by addressing the fear consumers have about the economy. About the same time, I articulated a similar strategy in a radio interview I did that aired in the Boston market. How long did it take GM to do something similar? Until earlier this week!

The King is dead. I hope the new King – or kings, as I have argued earlier – come from middle ranks or better yet, from outside the industry. Ford’s Alan Mulally, after all, has been making faster progress and has so far, not had to reach for the begging bowl.

Comment » | Business Environment, Company Performance, Corporate Culture, Financial crisis, Leadership, Organizational structure, Politics

The Lessons of Camelot

March 19th, 2009 — 3:43pm

I have been trying desperately hard to stay away from politics. But the global financial crisis has made this impossible: virtually every business issue is singed, if not actually charred, by the blaze of the crisis. So, with the deepest of regrets …

Imagine President Obama, announcing at his press conference today that the US Special Forces had arrested Osama Bin Ladin. I would bet good money that the first question he’d get would be, “That’s great, but what about the AIG bonuses? Haven’t Americans been duped enough?”

Near the end Alan Jay Lerner’s musical Camelot, Guinevere and Lancelot offer to surrender and return to England to face justice. Arthur spurns them; his people no longer wanted justice, he says, they wanted revenge. Right now, the American people want revenge. They don’t want to be told about the contractual law, they want someone on Wall Street to feel real pain, just as they are feeling it. Bernie Madoff would have been a great fall guy, but he refused the part written so perfectly for him and pled guilty quickly. The people at AIG Financial Products Division, seen to be holding the country to ransom and getting away with it, have therefore become the focal point of public rage. They are making GM’s now departing Vice Chairman Robert Lutz (see my post “Marie Antoinette’s Soulmate”) look like a paragon of virtue. Which is why no one rebuked Republican Senator Grassley for calling on them to commit hara-kiri.

If President Obama does not display absolute, visceral rage – merely feeling angry won’t count – he seriously risks losing the people. Don’t believe me? Remember the effect on Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign of his calm response to the question about what he would do if his wife and daughters were raped and murdered? His calmness, combined with his opponent’s blatantly racist campaign, doomed him. Today, similar conditions are present and the stakes are higher.

If Mr. Obama loses the people, the economy will slide into depression. This crisis in our networked world, as I have argued in earlier posts, was aggravated by a failure to manage as if the network matters. Ergo, resolving it will require tackling the ailings of the entire network, not just one of its nodes. Mr. Obama’s multi-sector bailouts and his plan to totally restructure multiple key sectors is exactly what is needed. But if the American people focus on only one node (AIG) of the network, he has no chance of succeeding. The good news is that as a master politician, he publicly repudiated Mr. Geithner’s position that the bonuses are a fait accompli. Now, he should take this repudiation to the next level and get some Hollywood types to teach him how to act furious on camera.

Substantively, Mr. Obama should outsource the work the AIG group does. These people are smart, but unlike Albert Einstein, they are not unique: The very products they used to peddle required them to work with equally smart people in other institutions. They are not unique! So, it is possible to fire them and simultaneously (this is key) introduce an outsourcing firm to take their place. The replacement firm could be one of the companies that participated in this market, but which currently have no (or minimal) such open contracts. If on top of this, the outsource firm were from a lower cost economy, so much the better: Wall Street can’t complain of being subject to the “market discipline” that they urge on others – and the American people would love the irony. (Incidentally, Wall Street already outsources a lot of work to India, albeit very quietly.)

Additionally, Mr. Obama should publicly and forcefully ask the organizations that provide the credentials job – CFAs, CPAs, NASD Series 7, JD, etc. – essential for a Wall Street to decertify (under morality clauses) those at AIG who brought disrepute to their profession. He should explain to Americans that this will deprive these people of their livelihoods in the world of high finance. Not quite Bernie Madoff’s fate, but definitely the equivalent of banishing Mordred from Camelot. Of course, if these people not only repaid this year’s bonus, but also contributed their entire last year’s bonus to charities that are working to help those who lost their jobs and homes, they might, just might, be able to retain their credentials.

I often tell executives that instead of battling a culture, they should focus on skillfully using the elements of the culture that can help them achieve their key goals. That’s what Mr. Obama must do now. In the final analysis, Arthur lost Camelot, as my teenager astutely told me the other day, because his knights saw peace as boring. He could not hold on to their passions and lost their support.

Mr. Obama must take steps that the Puritans of New England, the gun slingers of the Wild West, the Rhett Butlers and Scarlett O’Haras of the South and the flower people (yes, there are still many of them) of the two coasts appreciate. Stated differently, he must apply the lessons of why Camelot failed. Only then will he be able to fulfill his dream of taking the country back to Camelot for a sustained period of time.

Comment » | Business Environment, Financial crisis, Leadership, Politics

Back to top