Predictability, if you think about it, is a largely pejorative sort of word. Call someone predictable and what you are really saying is that person is a touch boring. Almost by definition, a predictable sporting contest lacks the excitement that makes it worth watching. And the growing unpredictability of the economic, social and political environment is what makes it fun to be — or at least provides the opportunity to become — a successful entrepreneur.
Right? Well, wrong actually, according to Howard H. Stevenson, whose Do Lunch or Be Lunch is an extended battle hymn to the positive connotations of and, as the subtitle of his book declares, the power of predictability in our lives.
Emblazoned across the cover of the book is a pair of tiger's eyes staring threateningly at the reader. On first acquaintance, the book appears to be one of those shock maxims that give "airport" management texts a bad name. Readers expecting another tool kit containing bullet points for survival in the corporate jungle, though, will be disappointed (or, perhaps, relieved).
As you might expect from a self-confessed "math geek," who is now a distinguished Harvard Business School professor successfully practicing what he preaches, the content is more subtle. In some ways, indeed, it is not a conventional business book at all, more a personal view of the human condition, and the patterns and habits that people have developed for themselves (notably in human organizations) over time.
Therein, however, lies the frustration. Predictability and projectability — the latter a made-up word that implies not only prediction or what's going to happen next, but an estimation of how we value that predicted future — may be an interesting lens through which to look at ourselves and our aspirations. But by the end, one wonders where it is all leading and whether the author's preceding psychoanalysis will be accompanied by any useful conclusions. To reach the final page and come to a section called "The Question" is somehow symptomatic of the problem.
One worries also whether predictability and projectability provide a sufficiently robust structure around which to hang the author's insights and experience, and whether a truly coherent and convincing thesis can be built on this single idea.
One of Professor Stevenson's fundamental contentions is that human organizations (of which corporations are merely one recent manifestation) were invented to increase, and should continue to serve the purpose of increasing, the predictability of people's lives. Conversely, he believes, the recent actions of many boards of directors in the 1990's suggest corporations are breaching this implicit promise in a way that not only challenges their moral legitimacy but will ultimately compromise their economic effectiveness. To support his critique regarding economic effectiveness, Professor Stevenson cites AT&T's surprise announcement that it was planning to lay off 40,000 workers in three years and the exclusively shareholder-focused strategy of Scott Paper's "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap. Both of these cases are dramatic examples of something, but perhaps not exactly what the author had in mind. Management practices that create further uncertainty — such as re-engineering, continuous improvement, matrix management, strategic restructuring, and the creation of "virtual" (essentially impermanent) organizations — offer little help, the author suggests, in achieving either greater legitimacy or effectiveness. This is a contention that many shareholders and C.E.O.'s might not so readily support.
Companies are not the only agents of unpredictability, and Professor Stevenson has stern words for the judiciary, for those who refuse to acknowledge that technological progress can have harmful effects that society should seek to mitigate and for the "lottery" aspect of regulation.
But if the world is becoming a more erratic place in which to live and do business, what are we supposed to do about it?
Professor Stevenson goes to some lengths to convince the reader that making an accurate prediction of the future and taking effective action to get there have driven human behavior from day one. Biology ruled in primeval times — will the tiger get me from behind that stone or not? — but social, psychological and philosophical imperatives have played a growing role over the centuries, and guidance (or "predictive power") has at different times been available from the Church, from civil authorities and from scientific discoveries. Over the years, the author concludes, we have improved our act when it comes to predicting the future. This is the reason we have been able to create so much wealth. But with all those modern-day tigers out there waiting to pounce, we are going to have to become a whole lot better as a species if we're going to survive.
Professor Stevenson explores three phases of the process by which individuals can try to reckon what will happen next — observation, calculation and action. But he is ultimately more concerned with groups and organizations, through which we take coordinated actions to fulfill our expectations and which for him represent the natural state of man.
Here is where the book gets somewhat more interesting as the nature of agreement and the different levels of human interaction are discussed. Companies pushing into more cooperative but at the same time more complex relationships, could do worse than mull over the passages that develop a distinction between the sort of agreements that simply govern "what we want" and those that require a deeper mutual understanding about "how the world works." As a result, "in many cases," Professor Stevenson writes, "too much agreement can be a bad thing ... Struggling to reach agreement on what we want out of life makes perfect sense if we're the marooned colony out on Rigel IV in the Delta Quadrant. It makes almost no sense if I'm Hughes Tool and you're Sunoco. At the end of the day we need to ACT, and action is much easier when we understand clearly how deep our agreement needs to be."
If I.B.M. and Apple Computer had figured that one out better, the Microsoft Corporation might not be the dominant force it is today. But working out what is critical to keep inside your organization and what is critical to let go (i.e., where to draw the line on alliances and the like) is easier said than done.
In the end, though, one has to go back to the coherence of the argument as well as the book's lack of solutions. The acknowledgments suggest that the book came together from a collection of taped thoughts, written notes and third-party comments and anecdotes, and unfortunately it reads like that, moving from theme to theme without a strong enough thread to produce a really interesting pattern.
Predictability, to be fair, is there on every page. But I think the flaw may be in making the word work too hard, imposing a straitjacket on the book's main ideas. The sort of unpredictability that Professor Stevenson says entrepreneurs are good at limiting is really risk by another name, and a rather different concept from the insecurity felt by workers at Scott Paper or AT&T in the wake of unexpected downsizing announcements.