Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Natural Organization

My friend Robert Paterson, one of the most provocative thinkers I know, has been publishing a fascinating series of posts, "The Natural Organization," on his blog. If you've been influenced by the critiques of industrial agricultural by journalists such as Michael Pollan in "The Omnivore's Dilemma" or Eric Schlosser in "Fast Food Nation," then you should definitely read Rob's blog: He takes these ideas about our food system and uses them to help explain what does and doesn't work in all forms of human organization, especially when confronted by the need for dramatic change.

Monday, June 15, 2009

No Map, No Guide, No Limits

The website No Map, No Guide, No Limits is an outstanding resource for anyone interested in the subjects of change and innovation (as well as adventure, risk, and entrepreneurship). Its editor, Lane Wallace, also writes a thoughtful and provocative column on the Atlantic Monthly's website. Talk about someone who really "walks the walk" about embracing change: Twenty years ago Wallace left a successful corporate career to become a pilot and "adventure writer," and since then she has flown relief supplies in the Amazon jungle and to conflict areas in Africa.

Monday, June 8, 2009

"Does Apple Need Steve Jobs Anymore?"

I've recently started writing a more-or-less weekly column about business leadership for The Daily Beast, the website run by Tina Brown, the former top editor of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair magazines. The idea of the column is to take the ideas about leadership and change that I've developed in my research for my upcoming book, Walk the Walk, and to apply them to the personalities and issues that are making news right now. (My column today asks "Does Apple Need Steve Jobs Anymore?" given the company's fine performance during his leave of absence).

As a journalist who has spent the past two decades in the old media--as a writer for monthly or fortnightly print magazines such as Fortune and Fast Company and as a book author who has at least a full year to do research and hone his prose--writing "off-the-news" on a short deadline for a website is a new challenge for me. But it's already proving fun (and instructive) as a first-hand experience with the emerging media. It's gratifying to see an open discussion of your work from the moment that it's published, though that also means that your mistakes are publicly corrected and your opinions may be forcefully rebutted.

As an author who has extolled the importance of change and challenge throughout one's career, this is one of my own attempts to "walk the walk." I admit that it's not easy to go from having 21 years experience in the old media, and the expertise that come with that, to having hardly any experience with the new media, but it's surely worth trying.

Monday, June 1, 2009

"Change or Die" Watch: General Motors' bankruptcy

Anyone who's wondering how a company that it had so dominant in its field, as General Motors once was, could wind up declaring bankruptcy, as GM did today, might want to read the sections about GM in my book "Change or Die" (Collins, 2007). Here's one passage from the book describing the "denial" of GM's executives about their problems going back a half century:

In its heyday GM had been had been extraordinarily dominant in its business. It captured 60 percent of the U.S. car market in 1960, selling twice as many cars as Ford and Chrysler combined and six times as many as the imported brands. But GM's executives developed a superiority complex, and for decades they remained in denial about their cars' quality problems.

They had the facts from the beginning. In 1960 GM's engineers came up with a 100-point scale for comparing the quality of cars produced by the company's many factories. A perfect car would score one hundred. Every defect would knock off a point from the total. It turned out that many of GM's plants typically made cars with forty or more defects. They posted scores of sixty or below. That was embarrassing, since everyone remembered their own schools days, when a sixty was an F, a failing grade. They didn't improve the quality of the cars--they didn't know how. Besides, their cars weren't any worse than their competition's. Instead, they recalibrated the scale so 145 would represent a perfect score. This way, all of GM's plants would score one hundred or higher. A-plus! When a plant scored 130, employees would throw a celebration even though the cars still averaged fifteen defects. No customer would celebrate buying that car.

Of course GM ultimately closed the quality gap, but its top executives remained in denial about the crisis that confronted its industry beginning in the 1970s. Instead of learning lessons from the '70s oil shock, they went right back to relying on big gas-guzzling vehicles for their profits while Toyota got a crucial head start of several years in developing the technology and the market for fuel-efficient hybrids. GM has been in crisis since the '70s, but crisis does not actually inspire change, contrary to the conventional wisdom.

Faced for decades with a "change or die" scenario, GM didn't change.

Now Geneal Motors is going to survive only because of the federal government's role. But from what I hear, the Detroit auto executives are still in denial, even now. For months they've felt that U.S. has been ungrateful for everything they've done for this country, as evidenced by the feds' refusal to bail out Detroit to the extent that it bailed out Wall Street, instead forcing the automakers into bankruptcy and GM into nationalization.

Never underestimate the power of denial.