Zero Sum, More or Less

Great Comment from Mike on the “built to last” Post.

Mike: “Why does it have to be a zero-sum game, Tom? Why can’t a corporation (or other institution) be built to last AND impact? Why does it have to be about going out in a blaze of glory? Look at Japanese companies, for instance. The truly successful ones (Toyota, Honda, etc.) are planning decades ahead. DECADES. Kaizen (continuous incremental improvement) and kaikaku (revolutionary change) are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one often leads to another.”

TP: Are we sure Honda et al are really planning decades ahead? I once heard Canon had a 500-year plan. Are Honda and Toyota really making Great Cars? Better than Detroit, to be sure. But in my view there has not been fundamental innovation in the auto industry in 50 years. I’m unimpressed by all of them.

Kaizen, in my opinion, is not enough. Japan taught us Kaizen—and promptly went into a decade-long recession; Japan’s principal deficiency is “disruptive” innovation and “crazy” entrepreneurs in my opinion. (Where is their Gates, Ellison, Dell, Venter, Walton, etc.—hundreds of thousands of et ceteras!)

Kaizen? See the current issue of BusinessWeek. I am thrilled to have the Silicon Valley Bratpack inventing Web 2.0 at the speed of light. I want tomorrow’s companies—an unfair share thereof. Just got off the phone with the former Mayor of Austin. He’s running for the Texas Senate with a bumper sticker that reads: “Keep Austin Weird.” (Won his mayoral re-election with 84 percent of the vote as a Democrat in Texas.) He’s a Richard Florida fan—and fixated on developing tomorrow’s talent and companies.

P.S.: It’s a longer debate but I mostly think incremental change and revolutionary change are not possible in one kit. I am a Nicholas Negroponte (the MIT innovation guru) devotee: “Incrementalism is innovation’s worst enemy.”

Re “zero sum”: I think zero-sum is more or less axiomatic. I/it/they may sustain, but that is a byproduct of Living Totally in the Moment. (Zen-like, yes.) I love this quote from Oscar-winning Director Bernardo Bertolucci: “My only goal is to have no goals. The goal, every time, is that film, that very moment.” That’s me! I only care—no kidding—about this Post. It is the Sum Total of my life. If things keep building, great; if not, great. GM? I want them to be Totally Focused on Great Cars. Fat chance!

Mike: “GM—I don’t have any stake in GM, but why do the only choices for GM (or pick your favorite stumbling corporation) have to be extinction or mediocrity? Why can’t there be a third alternative of re-achieving greatness?”

TP: We must agree to disagree. As a sometimes betting man, the odds of that doubtless superb “third alternative” at GM are effectively Zero.

Mike: “You truly have no interest in any legacy? You don’t want your impact to remain after you are gone? If your impact lasts only a heartbeat, was it really worth it? Was the impact real? What if Ford, Edison, Eisenhower, Bacon, Newton, Marshall, Billy Durant, Eli Whitney, and a host of others had thought that way? If there is no LASTING IMPACT we have to keep reinventing the wheel all the time.”

TP: You read me wrong. I desperately want to have Impact. In my Post I contrasted “built to last” vs “built to have impact.” I want impact, but longevity beyond what I’ve already been granted is of minor interest. King had IMPACT; what he didn’t have was LONGEVITY.

Sometime back I said I’d finally created a definition of Excellence I was happy with. Namely: Sets the Agenda. Ford and GM and DEC and others “set the agenda” for several years—gave fellow CEOs nightmares (the other half of my Excellence definition). And then the receded into history—though there will be a chapter devoted to them—and the world is a different place because they were here.

TP: Mike … Great Post! (As you can see, it made a dent in my Universe. This is a point I dearly care about.) (I’m packing, in a rush—the above is sketchy, but the best I can do.

Tom Peters posted this on August 9, 2006, in Strategies.
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