Thursday, January 30, 2014

How the Mighty Fall by Jim Collins

HOW THE MIGHTY FALL and why some companies never give in (2009) by Jim Collins, Random House Business Books, UK, p 232

My interest in the study of organisations, its people, systems, strategies and practices has induced an interest in the writings of Jim Collins, who has written extensively on different aspects of organisations, their journey, survival and the causes what makes them great as well as what makes them fail.  In that series after having gone through Built to Last and Good to Great I picked up this title in order to understand the reasons why do organizations fail.

Jim Collins remarkably develops an argument for the causes of failures of big organizations through the writings, data, interviews profiling performances on different parameters.  The organizations like Bank of America, Zenith, A&P, HP, Motorola, Rubbermaid, Scott paper, Fannie Mae, Merck, Xerox, Circuit City, IBM etc. have been studied and the change led through their leadership and its impact on organizational performance has been narrated through many examples and on the basis of this certain conclusions are drawn as to the common elements in their strategies, policies, practices which resulted in their momentary or long-term failure. 

The research culminates into providing five stages of decline as Stage 1 - Hubris Born of Success, Stage 2 - Undisciplined Pursuit of More, Stage 3 - Denial of Risk and Peril, Stage 4 - Grasping for Salvation, and Stage 5 - Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death.  We grew up studying different life cycles of products and organisations. This life cycle warns the organizations at different level of its long term effect, if they do not change or adapt to new practices at organizational level. These stages are elaborated in different chapters through the organizational behaviour and practices, big companies reflected on.    

The lessons learnt could be related to individuals as well, since it is the individuals who develop systems, structures and strategies in an organizational set up. It is the individuals who form, develop and nurture organizations through developing an orgnaizational value system and compelling cultures which the successors follow. The basic fabric of an organization is woven through the value systems of individuals which is reflected through the policies and procedures followed in organizations. It is in this context this book makes a strong case for bringing out causes which warn organizations so that the learning could be used to never fall trap to those circumstances.

After becoming a giant corporation, its leaders tend to develop a sense of arrogance (stage 1), that it can do anything (stage 2), since it has brand, power, presence and performance to back it up. Initially it does provide some warning signals but the arrogance avoids such signals and develops a kind of belief that it is momentary (stage 3) and it can recover the fall in the long run. Non responsiveness of the leadership to the initial signals of fall, further deteriorates the performance (stage 4) and it enters into a situation where it can never improve (stage 5).  Bad decisions made with good intentions are still bad decisions (p 148). This journey of mighty corporations make them irrelevant and forces them to die their own death.  

The book is divided in 8 chapters of which 5 chapters are devoted to each stage. The last chapter is entitled Well-Founded Hope, which provides the ways how organisations can avoid and respond back through positive attitude and never-say-die approach. The role of leadership is said to be very crucial at this stage and great leaders are always on toes for change. Jim provides a defense for his recovery mechanism through the practices at Xerox, Nucor, IBM, Texas Instruments, Pitney Bowes, Nordstrom, Disney, Boeing, HP, Merck. What do these companies have in common? Every one took at least one tremendous fall at some point in its history and recovered. Sometimes the tumble came early, when they were small and vulnerable, and sometimes the tumble came when they were large, established enterprises. (p 116) The example of Churchill's return is also well cited.  People make organizations and their systems. Their value system, their capability to take risk, their enterprising behaviour, their leading ability, their determination towards fixing and achieving audacious goals affects organisational decision making and practices.  
If we discovered that organizational decline is a function first and foremost of forces out of our control - and if we discovered that those who fall will inevitably keep falling to their doom - we could rightly indulge in despair.  But that is not our conclusion from the analysis, not if you catch decline in Stages 1, 2, or 3. And in some cases, you might even be able to reverse course once in Stage 4, as long as you still have enough resources to get out of the cycle of grasping and rebuild one step at a time. 
If you have not yet fallen, beware the temptation to proclaim a crisis when none exists. ... The right people will drive improvement, whether standing on a burning platform or not, and they never take well to manipulation. (p 117)
Towards the end there are 7 appendices detailing the selection criteria for different companies, their decline and recovery mechanisms.  What caught my eye was Appendix 5 - "What Makes for the 'Right People' in Key Seats?" This is quite apt and fits into organizational set up for putting right people for right job. According to him right people fit with core values of the company, they are passionate about the company and its work, they fulfill their commitments, they don't need to be tightly managed, for them responsibilities are more important than just job, and they display 'window and mirror' maturity.  This work is compared with Level 5 leadership as explained in Good to Great in Appendix 7, looking at different stages of decline and leadership role.

I personally loved two last paras of the book:
Never give in.  Be willing to change tactics, but never give up your core purpose.  Be willing to kill failed business ideas, even to shutter big operations you've been in for a long time, but never give up on the idea of building a great company.  Be willing to evolve into an entirely different portfolio of activities, even to the point of zero overlap with what you do today, but never give up on the principles that define your culture.  Be wiling to embrace the inevitability of creative destruction, but never give up on the discipline to create your own future.  Be willing to embrace loss, to endure pain, to temporarily lose freedoms, but never give up faith in the ability to prevail.  Be willing to form alliances with formal adversaries, to accept necessary compromise, but never - ever - give up on your core value.
The path out of darkness begins with those exasperatingly persistent individuals who are constitutionally incapable of capitulation.  It's one thing to suffer a staggering defeat - as will likely happen to every enduring business and social enterprise at some point in its history - and entirely another to give up on the values and aspirations that make the protracted struggle worthwhile. Failure is not so much a physical state as a state of mind; success is falling down, and getting up one more time, without end.  (p 123)
This is a must read for those who are interested in the study of leadership, organisations and their transformations and I am sure apart from just learning different stages of decline, one would also learn lessons for self-development.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

ARTHASHASTRA by Thomas R Trautmann


ARTHASHASTRA: The Science of Wealth by Thomas R Trautmann (2012) Allen Lane - an imprint of Penguin Books, p 180

Adam Smith is considered the father of Economics, more particularly modern Economics.  People across geographies have grown with this belief that it was he who through his academic treaty called An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776 (the year when Declaration of Independence was adopted)  introduced the world with the importance and management of resources of a nation. He was a professor of morality at the University of Scotland and he argued and caught the academic attention through this work, much after his first book The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) which was received by its readers as a remarkable contribution for the study on selfishness, conduct, and duties of humans. He systematically elaborated the resources of a state and its proper management for the welfare of citizens. This modern treaty paved way to the policy makers and people interested in the management of resources.

However Kautilya's Arthashastra which was written some 2400 years back still remains first work on bringing out resources for nation/kingdoms. Though it has never been taught to us but lot of times a reference is made to this great work written sometime around 320 BC, while Chanakya was advising Chandragupta for better governance of state. Having been exposed to Adam Smith's economics, I always had this desire of reading Kautilya's Arthashastra and in this process came across this initiative of Gurcharan Das in tracing the history of Indian business.

This book entitled 'Arthashastra - the science of wealth' by Thomas R Trautman, Professor emeritus of history and anthropology at University of Michigan, is a concise commentary on Kautilya's Arthashastra. Different versions and narrations have been studied by the author and he conveys the essence of that voluminous work through this brief, yet focused account of economics through chapters on Kingdoms, Goods, Workplaces and Markets. In the modern day context, when we do not have Kingdoms, they could be studied, related and compared with the functions of a state, government and administrators.

Though last 2500 years have witnessed remarkable transformation in technology, transportation, communication, education, trade practices and control etc, yet one can observe much of the same behaviour, much of the same market operations and trading treaties. Business strategies of modern times are all crafted with the same mindset as they would have been crafted centuries before though nature of goods and services have changed drastically. This is where study of history becomes important which at times leads us to reiterate a point that come what may, human instincts remain same, they carry with similar value systems as good and bad are still same. Workplace behaviour is more or less same though the ambiance and approach has changed.
The Arthashastra gives us a king-centred perspective on wealth and power.  In it we see a concern for provisioning the royal household and army, and of alleviating famine in the kingdom, through the building and stocking of storehouses of different kinds. Its way of evaluating goods puts the emphasis upon treasure for warfare, foreign relations and for making visible the king's pre-eminence through the display of luxury... farming, farming village, market policies trying to sustain ideals of fair price and containing extreme fluctuations of price... It has two kinds of courts that provide for the peaceful settlement of disputes over transactions and the 'removal of thorns' from the kingdom. (p 140)
The foreword of the book is authored by Gurcharan Das which creates a platform for the book and introduces the theme of the book. I enjoyed this book thoroughly in a series of books published by the London School of Economics tracing back the Story of Indian Business and having gone through the other title 'The East India Company - the world's most powerful corporation' by Tirthankar Roy. As a student of modern day economics and human/organizational behaviour, I could find a close link between Kautilya's Arthashastra and Adam Smith's thinking (on human behaviour, organizations and economics). Indian academia has suffered a lot due to poor documentation and numerous invading interests which have somehow spoiled the age old academic treasures.  In this light this volume is a gift to the students of economic history and for this the whole initiative of this kind deserve applause.

I suggest this book for all of those who are interested in the study of history of political economy in India, and the history of business and economics of this part of the globe.