Sunday, December 06, 2009

HOW not to write...

I am not a very very big fan of 90% of all mass market business books; with few exceptions (Peter Drucker being one notable exception - everyone in modern business should read at least something that he wrote) they are all watered down nonsense, or propaganda or worse. I also find them to be muddled, incoherent, and mystifying in the Marxist sense (i.e., their purpose is to keep one confused, but "motivated" to behave in certain ways, in particular, ways that don't ask questions.) Well, the heck with that.

The only reasons I think one can find for reading most of them is a mixture of schadenfreude and/or as cautionary tales. That's why, on the trip home yesterday from Boston, I was amused to read an excerpt from Dov Seidman's "HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything [sic]".

I have always thought that three pillars give life integrity: physical security, material prosperity, and emotional well-being. Like the three legs of a stool, when they sit soundly on the ground life is authentic and meaningful; the stool has integrity. When something damages any leg, however, the stool becomes wobbly; life becomes unsafe and insecure. At the beginning of this century, concurrent with the growth of the information age and the sudden connectedness and transparency technology brought to people the world over, the Western world experienced a series of shocks that collectively rocked our stools.

I can imagine this guy thought that in 3rd grade.

Seriously, what kind of nonsense is this? "Three pillars give life integrity."

That sentence doesn't mean a damned thing! I or you have (or lack) integrity.
Life, an abstract idea about our condition, cannot, in and of itself have integrity, and no metaphorical "pillars" can imbue this concept with integrity.

Furthermore, physical security, material prosperity, and emotional well-being are not essential to one's integrity! Sometimes, if you have transgressed your own principles, you should not feel good! It's a sign of one's integrity to feel bad as a result of one's transgressions!

Shorter following text in "HOW...": Then bad things happened...

And then...

In democratic societies, we look to rules — in the form of laws — to provide the certainty, consistency, and predictability we require. In the days of fortress capitalism, we got very good at writing rules, but as the century came to a close, we began to sense that rules were letting us down....

This is one reason I hate reading this garbage: sweeping generalities. I rarely fly US Air, but when I see dreck like this in their magazines, I can't help but think: who the hell is their target market? Not me...

But one thing struck me: clearly the guy that wrote this is completely ignorant or else doesn't want to compare his ideas with the concept of regulatory capture, most recently prsented in the Notebook section of this month's Harper's...

The idea that there is a competitive “private sector” in America is appealing, but generally false. No one hates competition more than the managers of corporations. Competition does not enhance shareholder value, and smart managers know they must forsake whatever personal beliefs they may hold about the redemptive power of creative destruction for the more immediate balm of government intervention. This wisdom is expressed most precisely in an underutilized phrase from economics: regulatory capture.

When Congress created the first U.S. regulatory agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission, in 1887, the railroad barons it was meant to subdue quickly recognized an opportunity. “It satisfies the popular clamor for a government supervision of railroads at the same time that that supervision is almost entirely nominal,” observed the railroad lawyer Richard Olney. “Further, the older such a commission gets to be, the more inclined it will be found to take the business and railroad view of things. It thus becomes a sort of barrier between the railroad corporations and the people and a sort of protection against hasty and crude legislation hostile to railroad interests.” As if to underscore this claim, Olney soon after got himself appointed to run the U.S. Justice Department, where he spent his days busting railroad unions.

The story of capture is repeated again and again, in industry after industry, whether it is the agricultural combinations creating an impenetrable system of subsidies, or television and radio broadcasters monopolizing public airwaves for private profit, or the entire financial sector conjuring perilous fortunes from the legislative void. The real battle in Washington is seldom between conservatives and liberals or the right and the left or “red America” and “blue America.” It is nearly always a more local contest, over which politicians will enjoy the privilege of representing the interests of the rich.

Rules are often made for the benefit of the organization. And still are. Period. In the case of laws, regulations are made largely with the consent of those to be regulated. Period.

This bit in the Seidman book exerpt got some chuckles from me:

Innovating in WHAT powered twentieth-century capitalism, but those days are gone. If the McVickers came up with Play-Doh today, someone could take it to China, reverse engineer it in a week, and deliver it around the world at a fraction of the price. A Xerox machine might suffer a similar fate in just a few months. It is difficult to invent a better product in a world of commodities, and that is where we find ourselves. Starbucks unleashes a newfound appreciation for coffee drinks, and now every diner and greasy spoon serves caffe lattes. Dell makes an inexpensive personal computer, and Hewlett-Packard is soon doing likewise. Johnson & Johnson finds a way to protect the integrity of Tylenol, and nearly instantly every analgesic bottle has the same antitampering device.

It is harder now to Innovate in WHAT. It takes a lot of luck and money to be a pioneer, and even if you pull it off, the ability for someone to reverse engineer you in six months and not in six years eliminates a lot of the incentive for doing so. In 1999, two companies, ReplayTV and TiVo, simultaneously rolled out the first consumer versions of the digital video recorder (DVR), an invention that so completely revolutionized the television-watching experience that it held the power to fundamentally undermine the business model of the entire broadcasting industry. Seven years later, ReplayTV is gone and TiVo still struggles to be profitable with a medium-sized share of a small market. The DVR has become a generic commodity, made by any number of companies worldwide, and TiVo struggles to redefine itself as less about its hardware (its WHAT) and more about the experience its software delivers (HOW you use it).

This is why the United States has trouble competing in the world: their business writers are writing dreck like this and people are believing it.

In fact, people in the United States today can innovate, and the concept of "intellectual property" is becoming increasingly well known. Moreover, the fact of the matter is, there is no one-size-fits-all method for managing innovation known yet. This guy simply is not writing anything in conformance with reality.

Finally here's his recommendation:

Success now requires new skills and habits, a new lens for seeing, and a new consciousness for relating. In our see-through world, there’s an overabundance of information and it flows too easily for anyone to control it and outfox everyone. You can no longer game the system and expect that no one will find out. You need to stop dancing around people and start leading a dance that everyone can follow. Long-term, sustained success is directly proportional to your ability — as a company or an individual — to make Waves throughout evanescing networks of association, to reach out to others and enlist them in endeavors larger than yourself, and to do so while everyone watches you.

If we're going to be making Waves throughout evanescing networks of association, to reach out to others and enlist them in endeavors larger than yourself, and to do so while everyone watches you, I'd recommend a designated driver.

Note: it sure as heck doesn't sound like a bad thing for people to embrace "doing the right thing."

The issue, though is, in any corporation, the corporation according to laws must act for the benefit of the shareholders of the corporation. That is the corporation's prime directive. The benefit of the shareholders may or may not necessarily conform to purely ethical behavior, as the phrase "benefit" in capitalist societies translates to "maximize profit." It may be short term or long term, but morally and ethically, a corporation is as ethical and moral as a snake or a knife, which is to say morality and ethical behavior are not essential attributes of a corporation. Its objectives are completely divorced from that, and one's actions in the corporation either comply with the corporation's directives or they don't. They might not because one's personal code of ethics conflicts with carrying out the objectives of the corporation. Corporations and individuals should engage in certain behaviors (prohibiting discrimination of employees based on ethnic origin, anti-trust behavior, etc.) because they're in the interest of the corporation's shareholders.

All of that's not to say that one should not exercise the highest morality and ethics in one's business affairs. Of course you should; there's bad consequences both legally and existentially otherwise. But the idea that this is somehow related to the ability of a corporation to execute is tenuous at best, I'm afraid. People are motivated by ethical behaviors, to be sure, but there were those that enthusiastically carried out Auschwitz as well.

But, ethically and morally, you're still on the hook.

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