Thursday, August 02, 2007

Why the hurry?

Speed and "connectedness" are the new opiates of the managerial class. Too often we confuse being fast with being right-- as though George Custer is a better model than George Washington. In our seven by twenty-four obsession with the urgent we risk staleness and a loss of creativity. Few heed William James's observation that "we learn to swim during the winter, and to skate during the summer" or Jacques Barzun's that "the inner integration of experience takes place slowly and during inactivity."

We want to innovate but we refuse to internalize David Gelernter's insight that creativity occurs "in a state of unconcentration" and that "hard work does not pay. You can't achieve inspiration by concentrating hard, by putting your mind to it."

I wonder what the adherents of hyperconnectedness and hyperkinetics would make of an education program that gives executives " a breather"? One where they have "time to get to know their families again and to renew ties with old friends in a whirl of cocktail parties, dances, and barbecues." A place with time for "pickup softball games in the afternoon and spur-of-the-moment parties that go on at all hours."

This sounds like a boondoggle and it would be easy to write off the participants as future losers. But the former student was Gen. Schwartzkopf describing his year at the Army War College.

I suspect that this opiate is addictive for two reason. First, most products and services are really commodities. For all the talk of special competencies, brands, etc., there really isn't a lot of meaningful differences. So we rely on slavish availability as a substitute for distinctiveness.

As the old joke goes, you can sum up an advertising man in five words: "yes, sir, no, sir ulcer." Painful, but true, and a reflection of the fact that most advertising cannot demonstrate its value and most agencies cannot show that their ads are special.

A real craftsman, no matter what her field, does not need a pager or even voice mail. There are sufficient customers willing to wait to get unique wares. A Bernbach or Ogilvy understood this. The work, not merely hard work, was the focus.

Second, I believe that some of this incessant action is a reaction to the sudden onset of competition. Most businesses have not faced real competition. Distance, tradition, and scarce information combined to create cozy oligopolies. Firms in these markets (which were the norm for most of this century) could ignore customers.

That is gone. Managers must change the habits of a lifetime. Rethinking their business is hard work. It is so much easier to simply substitute "service" and action.

This last point is rarely given the attention it deserves. Peter Drucker wrote in 1954 that "any organization in which marketing is either absent or incidental is not a business and should never be run as if it were one." Further, that a "business enterprise has two-- and only two-- basic functions: marketing and innovation." If this is so and if many or most businesses have traditionally been protected within an oligopolistic fortress, then the implications are staggering.

Most executives, it seems, are only businessmen manqués because their organizations are not really businesses. The lessons of a lifetime do not need to be revised, they need to be tossed aside completely. It is no surprise, then, that many executives recoil when they apprehend this fact. They take refuge in action, connection, and other "irritable mental gestures" as a substitute for hard thinking.

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