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 / First Quarter 2001 / Issue 22(originally published by Booz & Company)


Monomaniacs with a Mission

Salvo after salvo of sweeping generalizations (e.g., "The age of progress is over…. Never has incumbency been worth less"), unsupported assertions ("The Internet has turned bricks and mortar into millstones"), and florid metaphors blast the managerial landscape, obliterating familiar features until little is recognizable. One moment concepts like organizational learning and benchmarking are there, and then they are gone, blown away in the indiscriminate shelling.

Eventually, the barrage slows, but only to reveal the familiar, serried ranks of yet another business school/ consulting framework, an analytical attack on the well-bunkered secrets of organizational innovation. Mr. Hamel's Business Concept Innovation framework is as fine as any scheme developed by a competent, château-dwelling staff officer. Like a good staff officer, however, Mr. Hamel uses his framework not to tell the troops what to do, but to generate some excellent questions about the wisdom of the organization's current deployment.

The challenge for the line manager is how to use the scheme in any particular firm. The questions may be generic — all organizations must face them — but every answer has to be unique, reflecting the singular circumstances in which each organization finds itself.

This implementation problem is common in many fields. Studying the history of art, for example, does not teach you how to create great art: It just helps you appreciate why it's great. Your studies may heighten your perception and stoke your enthusiasm to emulate the work of the masters, but you are still a long way from producing a great work. Similarly, the analysis of strategy allows you to appreciate why some strategies are innovative, but it doesn't teach you how to create them. Those skills, like those of great artists, are synthetic, not analytical. They cannot be taught conceptually — they have to be learned through well-structured experience.

Although Business Concept Innovation comes across as a left-brained thinking activity, Mr. Hamel does appreciate the distinction between the analytical and the experiential. He bolsters his framework with a series of injunctions on how revolutionaries should behave. We are told that they have to be novelty addicts who find discontinuities and search out underappreciated trends; heretics who uncover dogmas and never stop asking "why?" and so on. There are some excellent examples of individual zealots within IBM, Sony, and Shell, and of corporate radicals including Enron, Charles Schwab, and Cisco. The mini-case studies yield insight into exciting episodes in the evolution of these companies.

The question is, of course, to what extent are these lessons transferable to other organizations? They are desirable outcomes of development processes, the dynamics of which are not well understood. Enron, Charles Schwab, and Cisco, as well as the individual rebels that Mr. Hamel describes, have each gone through a development process that is unique to them. What's needed is a more systemic, context-sensitive developmental framework for understanding how organizations in general evolve, age, and renew themselves.

If Gary Hamel is optimistic about the ability of zealots to thrive in a corporate setting, English management writer Charles Handy is skeptical. In his recent book, The New Alchemists: How Visionary People Make Something out of Nothing, Mr. Handy sketches the careers of 29 entrepreneurs in fields ranging from business to charity to the arts. The profiles are fascinating, both in their diversity and in their commonalities, although the settings and contexts will be unfamiliar to North Americans who have not spent any time in England.

Although Mr. Handy's sample is too small to lead to new insights into the characteristics, contexts, and catalysts that evoke personal alchemy, they do support numerous findings from other works. He suggests, for example, that these alchemists all share great dedication to their cause, a doggedness that allows them to turn negative experiences into occasions for learning, and an ability to see things differently, as if through a "third eye" from outside the box of binocular vision.

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  1. Works mentioned in this review.Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (Harvard Business School Press, 1997), 225 pages, $27.50.
  2. Peter F. Drucker, Adventures of a Bystander (John Wiley & Sons, 1998), 352 pages, $27.95.
  3. Howard E. Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (Basic Books Inc., 1993), 440 pages, $18.
  4. Gary Hamel, Leading the Revolution (Harvard Business School Press, 2000), 336 pages, $29.95.
  5. Charles Handy, The New Alchemists: How Visionary People Make Something out of Nothing (Random House, London, 1999), 258 pages, £18.99.
  6. David K. Hurst, Crisis & Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change (Harvard Business School Press, 1995), 229 pages, $24.95.
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