Beware the “Best”

I’ve been in the ‘business world’ in some form or fashion now for close to thirty years – first as a student (graduating in 1986), then through my corporate career with an accounting firm, a manufacturing company, and a utility. The past twelve years have been spent writing and consulting on strategy and its execution with the Balanced Scorecard.

Back in 1982 when I began my university business studies all the ‘cool kids’ in class were toting copies of “In Search of Excellence,” the Peters and Waterman tome destined to become the first true business blockbuster and a must have on the credenza of every credible executive. I quickly discovered that the mere ability to parrot a few choice passages or tell the simplified tale of one of their exemplary companies awarded one with a certain cachet and prestige both in and out of class. Later, when I entered the job market, it was ‘Built to Last,’ then ‘Re-Engineering the Corporation.’ The most recent phenomenon was ‘Good to Great.’ There were many others as well. Sometime in the 1990s I also began a subscription to the Harvard Business Review, a relationship I have maintained for the better part of twenty years now. Of course, I’ve read hundreds of other magazines and studies over the years as well.

Reflecting back on all those many pages what stands out to me most are not the lessons imparted by the gurus of each successive age, but the repetition in the use of certain companies to ‘prove’ their particular theory of choice. It didn’t matter whether it was re-engineering, strategy development, Lean manufacturing, acquiring and keeping the best talent, or Enterprise Performance Management. Regardless of the principle in play the same companies were used again and again. When I was starting out writers were erecting statues in ink for the likes of Atari and Xerox. Later it was Enron, Toyota and Dell, and now the darlings appear to be (among others) Google, Amazon and Best Buy. To be perfectly honest, I’m tired of every second article or book I pick up having a title something to the effect of “Run Your (fill in the corporate necessity of the moment) like Google!

In his outstanding book, “Influence: The Science of Persuasion,” Robert Cialdini identifies social influence (or simply peer pressure) as one of six proven and reliable drivers of persuasion, regardless of the situation. Nowhere is this attribute more in play than in the business press. It’s as if business authors wouldn’t dream of even proposing their idea without the so-called proof of success at one of the companies in the spotlight at the moment. When I read these stories now I often find myself thinking, “I wonder if the people at Google or Best Buy even know they’re doing this?” Most of the time they didn’t invent the phenomenon in question. The authors have an idea, want to show its efficacy and feel the best and most persuasive way to do this is to link it with a successful company. That makes sense, but the problem arises when we put these companies on a pedestal for all of their innovative practices only to see them occasionally tumble in humiliating fashion. And tumble they do. Atari, praised effusively by Peters and Waterman, have been moribund since 1983. Dell has certainly had their share of troubles, as has Toyota, recently mired in a quality mess that’s seen their highly burnished reputation take a sizeable hit. And of course, don’t even get me started on Enron – once hailed “America’s Most Innovative Company” a stunning six years in a row by Fortune.

Amazon, Google, Best Buy and the others stars shining in the business galaxy today are unquestionably successful companies, but it’s both dangerous and unfair to emulate them with singular devotion and expect the rewards to suddenly rain down upon you. All of these companies perform a specific combination of activities that act together in a synergistic way to drive the execution of their strategies. If we could all copy everything they do, we would, but it’s obviously not that simple. Nor should you want to follow blindly what others do. There is an enormous gap between admiring and learning from a company versus trying to copy its success. It’s healthy and productive to learn from others, but you still need to apply a liberal dose of homegrown wisdom and know-how forged in the battles that shaped your unique culture if you hope to achieve success yourself.

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