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solid yet pedestrian, like lots of businesses
on June 6, 2002
As I dutifully plow through the currently popular business books - and I read only the ones that I need rather than for pleasure - I occasionally find a good and (fairly) interesting one. This is one of those books I would recommend. Instead of overflowing with ridiculously florid rhetoric about recycled banalities and excitement that is simply not justified, this book is based on solid research and is not afraid to offer un-spectacular advice.
It is about what the authors call "visionary companies," which stand for something beyond just making money and yet are profitable. They do well, and they do good. There is no doubt that such companies exist, which I admit in spite of my boredom and cynicism regarding most of the businessmen and "business intellectuals" that I deal with as a writer.
Set up like an academic study, the book is a synthesis of the authors' findings while taking a long historical view of consistently excellent (i.e. "visionary") companies like H-P, Merck, and P&G.
Not surprisingly, these companies do similar things: 1) they have visions and value that they try to uphold consistently throughout the company and to which they stay true over decades; 2) the set incredibly ambitious (and in retrospect realistic) goals that inspire their employees ("big hairy ambitious goals"); 3) they are cult-like in their beliefs in themselves; 4) they allow for trial and error, which lead to "evolutionary progress"; 5) they hire leadership from within; 6) they cultivate keeping their employees a bit off-balance ("uncomfortable") as a way of getting them to perform at their best; 7) they make sure that all elements work in concert and are internally consistent and self-reinforcing ("alignment").
That is it for the ideas, which are far more nuanced than the above paragraph. They could be summarized in one chapter, and the rest of the book is repetition and analysis by example. The examples are interesting and informative and the ideas, which have all been said before, are good to review in a systematic way. Very good.
These are good and useful ideas, if somewhat banal. But then, doing business is rather dull for the most part - there are very few exciting companies out there, but most of them are like horribly dysfunctional families. This is the authors' bid to explain the good few.
The tone of the book is rather modest, but the authors do get a bit too wordy and chummy in many instances. While I liked the modesty, I got bored with the chumminess.