Taylor, Bill (No. 2)

bill_taylor_web.jpgBill Taylor is a writer, speaker, and entrepreneur who has shaped the global conversation about the best ways to compete, innovate, and succeed. As a cofounder and founding editor of Fast Company, Bill launched a magazine that won countless awards, and earned a passionate following among executives and entrepreneurs around the world. His previous book, Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win, was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller, and was named a “Business Book of the Year” by The Economist and the Financial Times.

Bill wrote a regular business column (“Under New Management”) for the New York Times as well as a monthly column for London’s Guardian newspaper. He now writes a popular management blog for Harvard Business Review. He is an adjunct lecturer at Babson College and the co-author of three other books on strategy, leadership, and innovation.

A graduate of Princeton University and the MIT Sloan School of Management, Bill lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts with his wife and two daughters. His new book is Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself.

[Bio adapted from WilliamCTaylor.com]

Practically Radical book cover

tompeters.com asks:

Bill, what do you love about business?

BT: What I love about business is that, more than any other institution, it offers the promise, at least, of really having a dramatic impact on how people live, how we communicate, and the quality of our experiences in all kinds of different ways.

I’ve been writing and thinking about business—I hesitate to say it—for 25 years now. Right out of college I worked with Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, on a book called The Big Boys: Power and Position in American Business. Nader—love him or not—has a very expansive view of the world and thinks big. He spoke with the leadership of U.S. Steel, as it was known back then, Dow Chemical, and Wall Street investment banks, not about numbers and quarterly returns, but about the legacy they wanted to leave and the impact they wanted to have.

Weirdly enough, I feel like everything I’ve done since then—being a young whippersnapper at the Harvard Business Review and starting Fast Company with Alan Webber—has all been a variation on a bunch of themes that were hatched back when Ralph Nader and I encountered both the promise and the limitations of business. Can we think more ambitiously, more broadly, more creatively about the kind of impact that business institutions can have in the world?

It was not just from the point of view of social responsibility, but from the point of view of enriching all of our lives. I guess Practically Radical is my latest effort to develop those ideas.

I want to step back a moment. You’ve had 25 years, as you said, of closely studying American business. If you were a doctor, what’s your current health prognosis?

BT: I think that the prognosis is both amazing and terminal. It depends where you look. What strikes me is that the kinds of leaders and organizations I hang out with are just so exciting, so energizing, and so inspiring. The leaders of those organizations and folks deep in the ranks wake up every morning and say, “How can we reinvent the field we’re in? How can we reshape the expectations of customers, our fellow employees, investors, and society about what it means to be in the financial services business or the hospital business?”

The trouble is that most people in most organizations spend most of their time operating in the middle of the road. They do things more or less the same way everybody else does things, and they wake up every morning wondering, “How come we’re not doing any better than other people?” Operating in the middle of the road was where all the customers were, in theory. That’s what felt safe and secure. “Hey, if we do things more or less the way everybody else does things, how bad can it get?”

Well, pretty damned bad. Today, with so much change and so many new ways to do just about everything, the middle of the road has become the road to nowhere.

If you’re a leader or you’re in an organization that’s kind of a middle-of-the-road organization, it looks pretty hopeless out there. You’re an organization that says to itself, “How do I become the most of something in my field? How do I get out of the middle of the road?” Maybe it’s the most exclusive, maybe it’s the most affordable, or maybe it’s the most local, but the organization and leaders that are thriving are the ones that embrace this “most of something” mindset and aren’t satisfied with doing things the way everybody else does. Seth Godin once wrote, “‘Tastes like chicken’ is not a compliment.” I think too many companies taste like chicken today, and that’s the problem!

What are you trying to do about this problem with your book?

BT: Answer one pressing question: “How do you make meaningful, enduring change in long-established organizations?”

What we did a lot of at Fast Company, and with Mavericks at Work is to look at the kind of blank-sheet-of-paper, start-from-scratch organizations, whether they were classic Silicon Valley startups or startups in other fields. They were companies that were “born at the right time,” that had no pre-existing conditions, if you will, and were able to simply do things new and exciting from day one. That’s great, and you learn a lot, even if you’re part of a 100-year-old organization, by looking at those sorts of things.

However, what I wanted to do this time is to ask a very simple but still quite poignant question, “How do you make long-lasting change in long-established organizations?”

I’m interested in those types of companies for two reasons. We’re now at the 15th anniversary of the launch of Fast Company. For the last two years, I’ve been reflecting on the early days and the glory days. Before the first issue of the magazine came out, Alan Webber and I convened a conference of 100 of our closest business friends under the theme, “How do you overthrow a successful company?”

It wasn’t Internet hotshots trying to take on the corporate establishment. It was change agents from Levi, Xerox, Citicorp, and Roche, the big pharmaceutical company. These were all the young and restless people inside these organizations. They were doing fine, but understood that there were huge changes coming over the horizon. They worried that they and their colleagues weren’t prepared to reckon with what was coming at them in terms of technology change, new marketplace change, and culture change.

We know what’s happened with Citicorp, Levi, Roche and the big pharma companies, and Xerox. It didn’t go very well. It’s 15 years later, and that question is as urgent, pressing, and hard to answer as ever.

I felt like this was the time to devote a book to, “How do you unleash positive change in difficult circumstances?”

That might be a bad economy. It might be a difficult industry. It might be an organization that’s lost its way. What I’ve done in the book is try to tease out ideas, lessons, and hands-on practices to guide people whose job it is to make long-lasting change in long-established organizations.

You open up writing about the Providence, Rhode Island Police Department. Why?

BT: In the book, I’m trying to highlight leaders who aren’t afraid to wrestle with the toughest challenges there are. The Chief of Police in Providence, Dean Esserman, is really one of the most inspiring and flat-out entertaining leaders and change agents I’ve met in a long time.

He came eight years ago into this dying city and a police department that was legendary for both its ineptitude and its corruption. The Mayor of Providence, Buddy Cianci, spent four years in federal prison for all kinds of corruption charges. The FBI called their investigation Operation Plunderdome, named after the film Thunderdome. It’s this absolutely horrific situation of corruption and incredible crime. Dean Esserman has since turned the Providence Police Department into an absolutely shining model for police forces all around the country to learn from. The statistics showing the long-term drop in crime have been absolutely staggering.

In terms of what business can learn, he totally reimagined how you would organize the Department, how you would open the it up to outside ideas and influences. He has this great thing called “Cops and Docs,” where his detectives—the police equivalent of surgeons—meet on a regular basis with surgeons from the Brown University Medical Center. They share with each other how they would approach each others’ cases, criminal or medical.

There are countless examples like that. Esserman’s one of the most radical change agents I’ve ever met, and the results speak for themselves. His capacity to interpret what he’s doing for a business audience is quite compelling. So I wanted to start the book on precisely that kind of surprising note.

One of the points in your book for a long-standing organization that wants to reimagine itself, is to look to the past. I loved how Dean Esserman addressed the issue: “Listen, what did policemen used to be? They were really members of the community. They walked the beat.”

When he first came to Providence, he noticed that there weren’t any precincts. Nothing was organized. There were just 27 car patrol routes. Changing the focus away from guys in cars and involving the community was brilliant.

BT: It is. He sums it up best when he talks about how 911 has destroyed modern policing. The basic theory of 911 policing is, “If something bad happens, dial 911, and we come and try to solve the problem after the fact.”

He has such a command of history and understanding of the ethos of policing going back, quite literally, hundreds of years. He combines it with new ideas of how to make change.

Many of us still have the family doctor or the family priest. The question he wants answered is, “Who’s your family cop?” which is like a completely nonsensical question in the sense that you don’t know any of the policemen in your city. His theory is that you divide the city into as small a number of neighborhood-oriented precincts as you can. Cops get to know all the merchants and put their business cards with their 24-hour-a-day cell phone numbers up in every pharmacy, convenience store, barbershop, and Target. He wants people to not dial 911. If it’s an emergency and you’re bleeding, dial 911, but if there’s something you’re seeing or something you’re noticing, call the cop on his or her cell phone and have a personal conversation.

One of the metrics he follows is: Are 911 calls, on an annual basis, decreasing rather than increasing, not because people are communicating less with the police force but because they’re communicating more in terms of before-the-fact questions, insights, and if-you-see-something-say-something kind of deal?

He goes to every gunfire or murder scene himself. He loves it when he arrives on the scene and all the cops’ cell phones start going off. That’s not their superiors calling them. That’s folks in the community saying, “Here’s what I just heard. Here’s who I saw running away.” It’s not cops walking up to complete strangers and saying, “What did you see?” It’s the idea of making policing more personal and more human, which was the way it was in 1820 in Providence. He’s being very modern in all kinds of ways, and yet having a real appreciation for what we’ve lost. As he says, “We’ve turned the police force into an occupying army.”

Oftentimes, the best way to create the courage and confidence organizationally to make radical change for the future is to get a deeper and more profound understanding of your organization’s history. It’s kind of a political slogan, but I like it a lot. Bill Clinton, in his first inaugural, when he came in with such a despondent America, said, “There’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed by what’s right with America.” I think it’s true; and I think it’s true of organizations, as well.

Every big mediocre organization was great at some point in its history. That’s how it got to be big. You can go back and understand the ideas and the sense of confidence and innovation that made you great in the first place. Then rediscover it, reinterpret it, and use it to build a new future as opposed to hiring the same consultants everybody else hires, using the same abstract business jargon that everybody else uses.

Right, but you do need to deal with the structure, the way people report to each other. That’s what Dean Esserman turned upside down, taking what was once a closed meeting and bringing everyone in, right?

BT: You’re right. How do we get back to having the police force be a closely-knit member of the community? How does your organization do something similar? By appreciating the timeless virtue of what you used to be and then having a very cutting-edge interpretation of that.

In this case, every Tuesday morning at 8:30 a.m., Esserman’s weekly command meeting is open to the community. Every commander for the local precinct, every lead detective in homicide and drugs, the U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island, the head of the social work agency, reporters, ministers, and rank-and-file citizens all sit in the Chief’s conference room. They do the crime statistics on the big board and they’ve got the maps with the pushpins to talk about auto thefts. It’s truly an open systems meeting.

I don’t know many police departments that do that, but it’s both symbolic and substantive, asking people to be part of the solution. They have gone from one of the most corrupt police forces in America to one of the most open and transparent. It’s really something to see.

In the introduction and a few places throughout, you have the phrase “animal spirits.” Where does that come from and why is that an important concept in this book?

BT: John Maynard Keynes in his masterful General Theory of Employment famously coined the phrase “animal spirits” to explain why financial markets and economies overheat and overshoot. People get so enamored of the latest technology or the latest investment fad that their rational limitations disappear and their “animal spirits” take over. That leads to all kinds of booms that invariably and badly bust. That notion of animal spirits has given rise to behavioral economics and using psychological analysis to look at economic behavior.

Part of what motivated the book was my sense that animal spirits can work in the other direction. We have big personal and cultural hangovers from this terrible economic downturn. Business leaders have been so shell-shocked and traumatized by what’s happened over the last several years that they’re simply not willing to take the reasonable risks and embrace a spirit of creativity that would allow them to get out of the doldrums. There’s the famous quote that everybody uses in Washington today: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” We’re all still trying to learn from the economic crisis. I’m afraid that so many leaders and organizations have basically learned the wrong lessons. They’ve learned to become conservative and risk-averse. They’ve learned to resist innovation rather than embrace it as the only way forward. I think that’s a huge mistake.

I want Practically Radical to inflame the animal spirits of people to get them back in the game in terms of thinking about creativity and innovation. One of my impetuses was an experience speaking to a conference of community bankers from across the country before the financial meltdown. I spent the day with these bankers, listening to CEO after CEO presenting. Honest to God, this was the most depressed group of people I’d ever heard in my life. I was crying by the end of it. It was that “the inverted yield is destroying our margins” and “Big Bank A in my city just took over Big Bank B, and they’re putting the squeeze on me, and our customers are so demanding and fickle.” It was like being at a collective funeral.

A market research guru from the financial service industry spoke. This guy sends mystery shoppers out to banks across the country to do things like open checking accounts and apply for auto loans. He told the bankers that for 25 years, he’s told his mystery shoppers to, at the end of each one of these visits, “Just walk around the bank, tap employees on the shoulder, and whatever they’re doing, ask them a real simple question: ‘You know what? I’m thinking of becoming a customer of this bank. Why should I do business with you as opposed to your leading competition?'”

Two-thirds of the time, front-line people have no good answer to that question. Most of the time, they run away because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Otherwise, they “make something up on the fly” which often has nothing to do with what the bank thinks it’s actually doing in the marketplace.

I’m looking around, and these bankers are completely unsurprised. I’m just stunned! How can any organization expect to out-compete its rivals if its own people can’t explain clearly, simply, and persuasively why it’s better than its rivals and why it’s better than it’s ever been in its history? That, I would submit, much more than macroeconomic conditions and all this baloney about economic policy, is the real problem at so many organizations today. People don’t have a clear sense of “What are the ideals that define how we do business and that distinguish us from how everybody else in our field does business?”

So this book is both a manifesto to get people running long-established organizations to get busy with that work, and a manual for helping them make that happen.

I just read on a blog about a new employee who asked the same question of his colleagues. They all had the same answer. They had a clear sense that they all were in the same thing together. Shared purpose.

BT: I’m talking a little out of school here—and I won’t mention the name—but I do a lot of speechifying, so I was asked to give a talk to one of the big executive search firms. They had this new head of Marketing and Strategy. He was a pistol and a real change-agent type. He pulled a trick on these people, which I found very instructive.

They’re putting together this incredibly expensive piece of collateral that was going to explain the philosophy, mission, and unique contribution of this particular executive search firm, and they had a lovely design and so on. He got up and said, “I’m going to take two or three minutes and read this statement of purpose and mission to you because we think the language is really impressive.”

He reads it, and everybody bursts into applause. Then he says, “That’s actually the mission statement of our competitor.”

To me, it was very provocative. We literally are reading from the mission statement of our competitor and thinking that it could be and is ours because we have no clear sense of what separates us from the three or four other big executive search firms in North America. I thought it was a very ballsy way of making that point.

Vision statements have become so generic they’re meaningless.

BT: I visited all kinds of organizations for this book and spent time, obviously with the leadership, but I also made it a point to get out in the field and spend time in the branch offices and in the healthcare clinics. These are organizations that have managed to develop a distinctive sense of purpose, a clear sense of the kind of impact they want to have in the world.

It takes a lot of confidence to be simple. It takes a lot of confidence to be direct. It takes a lot of confidence to embrace a set of ideas that your main competitors in the industry would listen to and say, “Wow. That sounds strange. That doesn’t sound like how we think about our business.” Well, that’s precisely the point. I think most people, when presented with the choice of doing something exciting, special, meaningful, and distinctive versus being one more middle-of-the-road player in an industry filled with middle-of-the-road players, intrinsically chose the former. If you have the courage of your convictions as a leader, you can rally an organization around what feels like an unusual and disruptive set of ideas.

Yes, though getting that message out there clearly and consistently to everyone is not very easy.

BT: No, which is why it’s got to be very simple.

That might explain why everybody can’t do all of these things. I recently interviewed Richard Pascale about positive deviance. With your business book, you are basically looking for the positive deviants, that top 5 percent. One of your examples is Zappos. There isn’t anybody who hasn’t heard about Zappos or how fabulous they are. They think, “Well then, why can’t everyone do that?”

One lesson from positive deviance is that there is always a solution within the community. If we look at the business community, there are people who are doing things right. The big lesson was that you can’t make a best practice of this and take that from Las Vegas, Nevada and then plop it down in Newark, New Jersey and say, “Here, do these things.” The community or company itself has to come up with a solution. They can’t just look elsewhere and copy those things.

BT: It is hugely important for both leaders and rank-and-file contributors to look at other organizations, not to copy their practices, but for a sense of permission to think bigger and broader and differently from how they’ve thought before.

I enjoy using is this phrase, “Vujà dé,” which was coined by George Carlin. The folks at IDEO use it and the great Bob Sutton at Stanford Business School uses it. We all know déjà vu, which is when you walk into a room and you say, “I’ve never been here before, but I feel like I was here in a past life or something.” Vujà dé is the opposite of that. Can you look at an industry you’ve been in for 15 years or can you look at a set of customers you’ve been working on for years and somehow put aside the tunnel vision that defines how you do things and look at it as if you’ve never seen it before? With that new set of eyes, can you begin to develop a whole new line of sight into the future?

Everybody wants new ideas, but oftentimes the best source of new ideas in one field is ideas that are completely routine and mundane and proven in another field. The minute you import them into your field, they feel free and revolutionary. At the very least, it gives you intellectual license to expand your horizons and your thinking. The job of the leader is to understand that the new form of business genius in the world today is the hidden genius that’s all around us that we so rarely tap into or know how to identify and leverage. Maybe that’s another way of talking about positive deviance.

What I urge leaders to do now is say, “You’re not a problem solver. You’re a solution finder. You should assume that whatever problem you have, somebody somewhere in your organization has already solved it.”


BT: The question is, “Can you be the fastest and the most expansive in terms of inviting in all kinds of people from all parts of your organization?”

It actually goes back to the “vujà dé” thing because they may not be blinded by the same tunnel vision you have. Can you invite smart people, wherever they are in your organization, to help solve your problems? The challenge for most leaders is to make sure that what you know doesn’t limit what you can imagine. I think that’s another huge hazard of being part of a big, established organization that’s been successful for a long time and may be running into some problems now. It’s the curse of the expert. You just think you know so damned much. You may, and that’s great. But oftentimes what you know limits what you can imagine. It takes real organizational and personal commitment as a leader to get beyond the comfort of narrow expertise.

When you speak to audiences, what do you talk about?

BT: In a very positive way, I try to shock people out of their intellectual and strategic complacency and make sure that everybody understands that we are living in an age of disruption. You simply cannot win big if you are trying to be a little bit better than everybody else or do things a little bit differently than how you’ve done them before. Success today is about making big strategic and intellectual bets on a small number of ideas that truly separate you from everybody else.

This book is rooted in 25 different organizations from all walks of life, from the Girl Scouts to cutting-edge software companies, from Interpol—the international crime-fighting agency—to inner-city hospitals. The one thing they all have in common in terms of organization—many of which have been around for 80 to 100 years—is that they’re enjoying tremendous performance today because the organization has made a big, intellectual bet on a small number of ideas that most of their competitors think are absolutely crazy. So, there’s an idea component to it.

There’s also, quite explicitly, an emotional component to it. This is not going to strike anybody as huge news, but I am persuaded that success in the marketplace today—this age of technology and bare-bones pricing and instantaneous access that we live in—is all about passion, emotion, identity, and sharing your values.

One of the by-products of this three or four years of slow growth is that so many people in so many organizations wake up every morning and they say, “How do we make things cheaper, faster, a little more reliable?” There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not going to get you anywhere. The question you’ve got to ask, no matter where you are and no matter what part of your company or organization you’re in, is “How do we make this organization more memorable for people to encounter, whether it’s more memorable for our employees as they walk in the door; whether it’s more memorable for our customers whenever they interact with us?” Whatever the constituency is, how do you conduct yourselves in a way that you create an emotional and psychological contract with these constituencies that quite simply separates you from everybody else and changes the conversation away from “Are you 2 percent cheaper this month?” and “Does J.D. Powers rate you 4 percent higher quality this year?” to a level of emotional engagement that puts you on a completely different plane?

Right, the “I’ve gotta have that thing” discussion.

BT: The Gallup Organization, which has done millions of customer surveys over the years, during a survey for Brand X or Company X ends every one of their surveys with the question, “Can you imagine a world without this company?”

That’s a very extreme question.

It’s a great question.

BT: Apple lovers would do that. Starbucks caffeine addicts would do that. Maybe business travelers who rely on the Four Seasons would do that. However, few organizations will ever truly get there.

Here’s the flip side. Roy Spence, the legendary ad man, asks his clients, “If you went out of business tomorrow, would anybody really miss you, and why?” The fact of the matter is that in every industry—if you’re making a cell phone, laptop, or car—there are more options and choices. The whole freaking world is on sale, so why might a company be missed? Because its product is so original that if it went away, knockoffs A, B, and C wouldn’t come out the next day. Because it’s created a workplace so vibrant and creative that if people couldn’t show up there on Monday morning, it would be more than, “Oh, shoot. I’ve got to go look for a new job.” It would be, “Wow. I’m missing something really important in my life.”

Obviously, not many organizations move the needle on any of those levels, which is why, in so many organizations it feels like you’re going out of business every day. Most organizations seem to be saying, “Can we go out of business a little more slowly than our three main competitors?”

“Can you imagine a world without this company?” or “If you went out of business, would anybody miss you, and why?” are really jarring questions that speak to this issue of emotion and psychological contrast.

Here’s another theme I discuss with my audiences. I’m in a room full of leaders. Maybe you’re people with big titles like CEO or Chief Marketing Officer. Maybe you’re running a project team and you’re an in-the-trenches leader. I ask, “What does it mean to be a leader? As an individual, what does it mean to be a leader today in a world that is changing as fast as it is?”

In a world where, if the definition of being a leader is that you’ve got to be the smartest person in the room no matter what room you’re sitting in, that is a formula for a) failure as a leader, and b) exhaustion as a human being. The problems are too complex and the opportunities are too huge. The question that’s been a theme of mine forever is, “How do you operate as a leader in a world where nobody alone is as smart as everybody together?”

It’s funny. In some sense, we ask too much of our employees and our colleagues. People are working too hard, traveling too much, and stressed out too much. On the other hand, we don’t ask nearly enough of our people in the sense that, once you get fitted into a box or a bubble on the org chart with a title, a department, and a region, as leaders we assume, “That’s what you know.” That’s opposed to when you go home at night, being an incredible designer or an accomplished musician. We live in world where so many people have so many talents and so many creative impulses, and know so much about so many things that they’re never asked to tap into at work because “That’s not part of the job description or the place I am in the org chart.”

You, as a leader, can think deeper about the kinds of remarkable people who surround you as employees and colleagues, as customers, and as suppliers, and look for that hidden genius. The chances of getting the successful solutions and strategies go way up, and you make your job and your life so much easier. You take the weight of the world off your shoulders when you say, “I can’t solve this problem by my own. What I can do is create the conditions where lots of smart people can think alongside me and with me, and together the group mind will come up with things that the individual mind could never come up with.”

How do you apply what you learn about business to your own work as a journalist?

BT: The biggest takeaway for me is a question I heard from Gary Hamel a few years ago, which he said was the most important question that any business person has to answer every day. “Are you learning as fast as the world is changing?”

I am always thinking about, “Am I getting too comfortable? Am I putting myself in situations, meeting people and visiting places which seem foreign and alien and making me ask, ‘What am I doing here? Do I belong at this conference? Why am I visiting with this company with technology I can’t possibly understand?'”

In a way, it is uncomfortable. However, those are the intellectual stresses and the leaps that I think are necessary to keep learning as fast as the world is changing. You learn the most by interacting with people who are the least like you. Yet, as business people, we spend most of our time with people who are exactly like us. It takes a certain act of will power to inject ourselves into places “we don’t belong” and where we feel two steps behind. But that’s where the learning takes place.

That’s great. Bill, thank you.

BT: My pleasure.


Email: williamctaylor (at) yahoo (dot) com

Website: williamctaylor.com

Twitter: @practicallyrad

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Blog: Bill Taylor – Harvard Business Review