Like Satan in the book of Job, I’ve been going to and fro in the earth over the past few months, in my case talking to corporate executives, consultants and former consultants. Among my questions to them: How are you thinking about strategy these days? Is the highest of managerial arts—or sciences, if you prefer—dead, as some allege? And what’s hot on the corporate rialto by way of consulting work? (more…)
My lunch companion arrived fifteen minutes late. “My phone has begun to ring again,” he explained, “which is a good sign for the economy.” Once a big-league strategy consultant, he now has a firm that advises CEOs on how to increase the value of their companies. “They’ve decided that we’ve touched bottom, or they wouldn’t be talking to me,” he said. “They’re starting to think about growing their businesses again.” Welcome news, but not what followed.
C.K. Prahalad manifestly qualified as a High Lord of Strategy, Second Generation. News of his death saddened me, and set me to reflecting on the themes running through his work over four decades.
This isn’t as easy an exercise as it is with many other management thinkers, including some great ones. Does it strike you, as it does me, that many a business author writes the same book over and over? Not Prahalad. As he told Adi Ignatius, he liked to move on to the next project, leaving it to a collaborator or someone else to further develop their latest idea.
A friend who books speakers for business events tells me strategy experts aren’t much in demand these days; indeed, they haven’t been for years. (Except in Japan.) Until recently audiences still sought out thinker/talkers on innovation or leadership. Of late, though, the rabble has ears only for economists or the occasional journalist who can shed light on the Global Financial Crisis (and perhaps wave a pitchfork in Wall Street’s direction).
So much for us who wear the big “S” on our sandwich-boards.
The poet William DeWitt Snodgrass died last year, an event little remarked on in the strategy community. This is probably because in fifty years of writing and teaching, Snodgrass evinced absolutely no interest in business, or none that I can detect. No, his province was the human soul, particularly the tortured soul. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for his first book, Heart’s Needle, a collection recounting the tugs, pulls, and devastation of finding himself estranged, through divorce, from his young daughter.
The last line of Snodgrass’s best-known poem does, however, contain a reminder useful for strategists.
Last time he was running for President, the time before this time, Mitt Romney gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal that ran under the title, “Consultant in Chief.” Romney had of course been a consultant at Bain & Co. before becoming head of Bain Capital, before becoming head of Massachusetts (as in governor of the Commonwealth). Asked how he would cut costs, Romney first despaired of the way Washington was organized, then floated a possible solution: “I would probably have super-cabinet secretaries, or at least some structure that McKinsey would guide me to put in place. I’m not kidding, I probably would bring in McKinsey…I would consult with the best and brightest minds, whether it’s McKinsey, Bain, BCG or Jack Welch.”
In 1966 Time magazine published a cover article posing the question, “Is God Dead?” Asked about the possibility, former President Eisenhower reportedly responded, “That’s funny. I was just talking with Him this morning.” Some of us are beginning to feel the same way about trendy assertions that strategy is dead.
As it turns out, Europeans got a bit of a head start having their defective Toyotas fixed. Yoshimi Inaba, head of the company’s North American operations, admitted to a congressional committee last week that in response to complaints in Britain and Ireland, Toyota made production changes to fix the sticky-pedal problem in Europe that were largely complete by January, in other words mostly before the massive recall on our side of the Great Waters.
You could hear the disappointment in my friend’s voice. “I had a lot of respect for Toyota,” she observed. More than most onlookers she knew the literature on its vaunted system of continuous process improvement. Here, she thought, most of us thought, was an enduring example of superior corporate performance. As the recall notices piled up I couldn’t help thinking, “How many more times are we going to fall for this excellent-company nonsense?”
Certain acquaintances advising large companies report signs of revival among their clientele. Apparently having concluded that the worst is over, corporate types are lifting their heads above the parapet and beginning to feel that old itch to go out there and acquire somebody, or maybe launch a new product line or two. Like all right-thinking people I’m gladdened by this news. But a reading of the history of strategy also leaves me cautious, afflicted with an oh-no-here-we-probably-go-again suspicion that some of the same old mistakes will likely recur. Watch out for one or more of the following coming soon to a company near you: