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Published: January 1, 1998

 
 

Leading Corporate Transformation: A Blueprint for Business Renewal by Robert H. Miles

Leading Corporate Transformation: A Blueprint for Business Renewal by Robert H. Miles (256 pages, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997)

There is something way off about Robert H. Miles's latest book, Leading Corporate Transformation: A Blueprint for Business Renewal, and it can be summarized in two words: Gilbert Amelio. Mr. Amelio was the hero of Mr. Miles's previous book, Corporate Comeback, a compelling account of the Lazarus-like revival and renewal of National Semiconductor, the high-tech manufacturer that survived a sea change in the semiconductor industry in the 1980's. Mr. Amelio rode in like an avenging Plantagenet, applied some common financial sense and Mr. Miles's ideas and helped reverse the "death spiral" to restore the company to health. Corporate Comeback recounts the story in the sort of minute detail that made it a useful handbook for other companies attempting a major culture change. (See review, Strategy & Business, Issue 5.)

The partnership between Mr. Amelio and Mr. Miles, an Atlanta-based consultant in executive leadership and, as he calls it, "corporate transformation," has continued. The blurb on Mr. Miles's 1996 book, Corporate Comeback, trumpets the team's new challenge: "Now leading an ambitious and highly public comeback bid at Apple Computer, Amelio and Miles are charged with pulling the once-invincible computer corporation back from the brink."

As everyone who has not been living under a rock in the Pyrenees knows by now, Mr. Amelio, and presumably Mr. Miles, in theory if not in person, failed to bring Apple back from the brink. Someday a consultant may apply fancy language to the alliance between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, but the temporary cure for Apple was elegantly simple: a synergy of cash and self-interest (Microsoft's) in service to a greater good (Apple).

It is impossible to know just yet where Mr. Amelio went wrong and whether the ignominy of his tenure should be attributed to what he learned from Mr. Miles and National Semiconductor — or what he didn't learn. By all accounts, he failed to "develop a vision of the future, align the organization to the vision and create a transformation process architecture to orchestrate a swift but safe passage from current to vision state," three of the fundamentals that Mr. Miles says are critical to an organizational transformation.

To Mac users on the sidelines, watching anxiously, hoping for a miracle, Mr. Amelio seemed no less adrift than his recent predecessors — just another corporate C.E.O. clone, like John Sculley, who thought the legendarily bratty, brash company just needed a little discipline. Even worse, Mr. Amelio treated his human capital, arguably as important to Apple as its operating system, with little more than disdain. By the time he was forced to parachute out, he had turned a beleaguered company with a creative, smart, dedicated work force into an even more beleaguered company with an edgy, paranoid (with good reason), low-morale work force. Not, in other words, a work force likely to be able to gear up for the crisis on Bosworth Field that Apple had become.

Experts have ways to explain failures. Usually, and most reasonably, when a consulting effort goes wrong, the consultant can recite the myriad ways in which the company failed to follow his or her advice. Whatever happened at Apple, it does raise the question of how appropriate it is to impose one model — even a flexible, processual model like Mr. Miles's -- on virtually any situation. If the model is so general that it can apply anywhere anytime, then what use is it? The insights Mr. Miles builds upon in Leading Corporate Transformation, which boil down to energize, envision, strategize and implement, don't provide much guidance.

Models, of course, illustrate a state of perfection, which is what change agents must keep in their heads in order to lead. And yet, in experiment after experiment at companies, change initiatives go awry — often expensively awry. The problem with models is that they cannot account for what goes wrong, even though what goes wrong may be utterly predictable. When social scientists study what goes wrong with well-intentioned social policies, they almost invariably learn that policies fail because the designers put more faith in their models than in the real world of individuals and communities. That is, they have more faith in how the world should work than in how it actually works.

Corporations undergoing change often seem to operate the same way: Change is treated as a rational process that could, theoretically, develop into a match of the model. Never mind that everyone knows that the influence of individuals and sub rosa constituencies will have as much impact on change as the kind of model an organization chooses to follow. What is needed, really, is a theory of the debacle, or at least a good, thorough chronicle of one.

Perhaps Mr. Miles will write that chronicle about Apple. Leading Corporate Transformation went to press before the story was done. Probably a lot before, because this sequel has the feel of outtakes from Corporate Comeback. Perhaps Corporate Comeback Lite would have been a better title. The book offers a few case studies, including a rehash of the National Semiconductor saga, as well as further adventures in developing a theory of corporate transformation. In fact, Mr. Miles writes that he did the sequel because leading executives asked him to expound upon the first chapter in Corporate Comeback, called Leading Corporate Transformation: A General Framework. It is not a good sign that senior executives want more theory. It suggests they think the world is perfectible. Better they should read a little Machiavelli — or at least his first chapter.

 
 
 
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