How these corporate wunderkinds plan to destroy their company

He said he’d go in to save the company, and then he went out, wrote the corporate equivalent of a book and spent three years getting it published. And now he’s back

Perhaps some of you didn’t notice – you either paid no attention, or ignored this story because, to paraphrase comedian Garry Shandling, “I’m too old and hirsute to be bothered with that kind of … / Lie” – but a Canadian industrialist turned wunderkind and the corporate equivalent of Henry Blodget have been making great news lately.

A pair of media dilettantes named Roger Martin and Hubert Joly led Best Buy, a massive US electronics chain, into one of the great bankruptcies of all time in 2010. The coming-out party, outside of the financial sector, was their self-published joint autobiography, Control Risk: The Crash Course in 21 Lessons for Surviving and Thriving in a Turbulent World. These guys have nothing against commerce – Martin is the founding dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, and Joly is president and CEO of Best Buy Canada. But they knew that if Best Buy was going to survive it would need to fix its corporate culture. So they did it! Then they went on about business.

As if to prove their point, Martin and Joly also recently published an updated version of Control Risk, now subtitled The Corporate Insurrection: How Today’s Super-Competitive Organizations Solve Problems and Control Chaos. The growing fat of this book is impressive – it’s been on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for several weeks, and is an essential if not necessary reading for corporate managers.

Far more important for those of us at outside the money sphere, however, are the two elements of control and chaos. Here’s how Martin describes the corporate dilemma:

There’s a contradiction at the heart of a competitive culture, one which will dictate the survival of a great organization: the more success that the company experiences, the more it must improve. But in order to improve, its processes, its information, its procedures, and, therefore, its operations must constantly be rethought and reprogrammed. I call this situation “the culture of chaos”: the more a company succeeds, the more it changes its methods and processes.

It sounds like an oxymoron. But this is how the self-proclaimed expert speaks his mind:

Winning brings new challenges. What matters is not how the company wins – that’s rarely interesting. What matters is the failure to adapt, its business model, its future thinking, its agenda, and its perceptions. The more successful the company gets, the more it must change. The culture of chaos shifts resources away from needed breakthroughs to pull off new things.

Almost anything you can do, you can also be done better. This ineluctable force is precisely what Martin and Joly set out to show. But it’s also the fundamental force that will separate the winner from the loser. But which one will win? In their new book, Martin and Joly argue that both of them will. But the percentage and consistency of improvements that will result will be more important than the margin or the time between wins. So “the boss who brings about the greatest improvements has the biggest opportunity to survive and thrive”.

At least, that’s the expectation of this super success! In a disheartening story for all the cynics reading this, the authors also write that “we believe that human beings still retain tremendous creativity and ingenuity to innovate and to solve problems, at whatever expense to them”.

So, will the handsomest person win? The most effective management consultant? The best-conditioned military operations expert? Well, even the most tattered manager who is smart enough and resolute enough and carries out his or her roles well can get things done, Martin and Joly are pointing out. And good luck finding them. Their company is no more.

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