A 20 Year Anniversary Reflection on Built to Last
In their 1994 business best-seller Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras divined attributes of "success" that were precipitated out of surveys of over 1,000 firms deemed to be "visionary". Companies like 3M, American Express, Boeing, Motorola, Citigroup, Disney, Ford, Sony and GE were described as exemplars of "leadership" and "innovation" compared to their rivals. For the period from 1926 to 1990, the greats outperformed their peers anywhere from 2 - 15 times their cohort or the broader market. Attributes associated with success included: great ideas (Big Hairy Audacious Goals or BHAGs); visionary leaders; focus on profit maximization; focus on beating competition; and formation of cult-like cultures.
Twenty years ago, no airport terminal bookstore (next to which I'm now writing this blog) could keep this book on the shelf as myriads of aspirants snatched their copy to glean from its pages some morsel of insight that would solidify their business acumen. And on this week - the 20th anniversary of the BTL release - it's helpful to critique the book for what it represents, and more importantly, the field effect of its dissemination. And, before launching into this analysis, I have to applaud Collins and Porras for one undeniable fact - they hit a chord that reverberated across the world and influenced a generation.
It would be hard to imagine any other way to get so many organizations to decide that defining a mission statement was worth focus groups, facilitated workshops, and millions of employee hours to put together some pithy statement like, "Our mission is to provide our employees and customers (insert superlative) (insert goods or services) with (insert integrity, accountability, or some other ill-defined ethical aspiration shown to market test well)." HP - the company that cannot figure out whether it's business is mass-produced mediocre office supplies or a bad version of Geek Squad - went as far as simplifying its mission to the one thing that it failed to execute more completely than anything imaginable - "Invent". Disney did an amazing job of insuring that all of its employees knew that they should stay in character at all costs while the firm danced between media suitors and spectacular box office flights of fancy. Motorola just rolled over and played dead. Missing from impulse to articulate mission statements was an awareness that what animated the "visionary" leader was not a cute slogan but a complex, indescribable appetite to relentlessly persist despite the efforts of those around them to "simplify" the message. In fact, what BTL described was the make-it-simple pathogen that took down the same visionary firms it sought to describe. Ask the architects of the Cathedral of Notre Dame - Bishop Maurice de Sully and Jean de Chelles - to succinctly describe what made the cathedral great and they would have likely launched you or themselves into the Seine in exasperation. Missions are measured by the evidence of their progress, not by their slogans.
Focus on maximizing what? Twenty years ago, the cult of Jack Welch was alive and well and profit maximization ala a Roman emperor was celebrated in the coliseum of enterprise. This fueled a denigration of labor to a productive tolerance dynamic rather than encouraging ecosystem optimization and engagement. Survival in situ led to systematic distrust of colleagues across business units such that the consolidating corporate moniker engendered less patriotism than the federated alliance of survivors bent on their self-preservation. To this day, BTL orthodoxy remains a primary wedge between intra-institutional collaboration where open innovation and collaboration is frequently more likely between sympathetic competitors than within the corporate monolith. Not surprisingly, landing a better position in another firm is as much a priority of a mid- to upper level manager as is the quarterly or annual performance of the employer.
"Cult-like" is good if you trade on belief and magic. Suspending critical thinking and 360 degree feedback throughout organizational relationships is a near certain way to create plastic failure instead of elastic adaptation. In an era when computational traders with their quantitative factors extracted unimaginable wealth from the equity markets, cult-like thinking gave rise to an erroneous assumption that all knowables worth knowing were known. To this day, the number of people in business who can be confronted with explicit evidence of knowledge deficiency based arbitrage which actually harms them and choose to elect blindness over perspective expansion is mind-boggling. Twenty years later, we have more cultist shamans and divination, not analytical inquisitive intrepid leadership.
In short, we've trained, published, recited, chanted, work-shopped, focus-grouped, and bludgeoned our intellectual curiosity into submission around an ethnographic study of celebrity - not longevity. BTL did not provide insight into core principles about how one builds for lasting effect. It did what any good mass-appeal book would seek to do - tell a story that feels good created largely on plausible fiction. And, as is the case with great fiction, writing so closely to the margin of truth as to be indistinguishable therefrom has always been an effective way to start a belief system regardless of the harm that it may unleash.
This past week I had the privilege of sitting in upper floor Manhattan offices with a few of the most iconic names in investment and business execution. These gentlemen exuded a strict adherence to enablement of their subordinates and protégés; relentless and vocal commitment to integrity, ethics and the practice of sobriety; and, fostered an environment in which the best strategy and tactics included entirely new perspectives unfamiliar just hours or days earlier. Best-selling books will likely assiduously avoid profiling these individuals. After all, their success was measured by the eco-system that they enabled which reciprocated benefit to themselves and others. Yes, they made their billions. But unlike BTL, their story wasn't about a singular congregation of minions bustling to do the bidding of an overlord. Rather it was and is about great character that happened to reinvest in others of great character. In so doing, these individuals and their institutions are known by the breadth of their influence and not by the tyranny of their zealous adherence to an identity illusion. And that, in the final analysis, is what persists: the legacy of greatness that begets transcendent mastery not born of survival but rather born on the shoulders of greatness.