1. Apple For walking the talk
2. Facebook For 800 million reasons to share
3. Google For expanding its hit lineup
4. Amazon For playing the long game
5. Square For making magic out of the mercantile
6. Twitter For amplifying the global dialogue
7. Occupy Movement For embodying all the traits that make a Fast Company
8. Tencent For fueling China’s Internet boom–and boldly moving West
9. Life Technologies For speeding up genetic sequencing
10. SolarCity For brightening up the sun-power business
“Welcome to our annual guide to the businesses that matter most, the ones whose innovations are having an impact across their industries and our culture. [If you click here, you can then click on] a company name to view the entry, or determine your own ranking of the top four companies using a series of quizzes, games, and brainteasers.”
As Jeremy Hope and Steve Player explain in Beyond Performance Measurement: Why, When, and How to use 40 Tools and Best Practices for Superior Business Performance, sustainability is not a passing fad. “Nor is it a public relations exercise. It offers a host of new opportunities to reduce waste, cut costs, and develop new and exciting products and services. But it means rethinking deeply ingrained management practices, such as the way firms set financial targets and budgets that collide with many principles of sustainability.”
The aim is to cut waste both within and beyond the organization and in a much wider ecosystem. That will require new thinking, obviously, but also new strategies, tactics, processes…and products. With all due respect to economic and operational incentives, I feel very strongly about the importance of “good citizenship.” It is no coincidence that the companies that are annually ranked among those that are most highly admired and the best to work for are also among those annually ranked among the most profitable and having the greatest cap value within their industry.
Here is what Jeremy Hope and Steve Player recommend.
Actions to Avoid
o Stop paying lip service and take sustainability seriously.
o Challenge economies-of-scale thinking.
o Be wary of short-term budgets and targets.
Actions to Take
1. Examine the evidence. (Check out exemplars such as Nokia, 3M, and Toyota.)
2. Embrace lean (or systems) thinking.
3. Measure what’s important.
4. Start measuring the triple bottom line (i.e. economic, environment, and social).
* * *
For a thorough discussion of sustainability and 39 other major business topics, I highly recommend Hope and Player’s aforementioned Beyond Performance Measurement, published by Harvard Review Press (February, 2012).
Note: I recently re-read this book and was amazed by how relevant its author’s insights continue to be.
MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Edgar Schein does a marvelous job telling the story of the rise and fall of Digital Equipment Corporation, the former #2 computer maker in the world behind IBM. The business reasons behind DEC’s economic failure have been widely reported (missing the advent of the PC, having too many projects going at once, failure to market products effectively, etc.) However, the big question to be answered is why did these failures occur? To quote one passage, “Why did an organization that was wildly successful for thirty-five years, filled with intelligent, articulate powerful engineers and managers, fail to act effectively to deal with problems that were highly visible to everyone, both inside and outside the organization?”
Schein looks at DEC’s failure through the lens of its corporate culture, and how it prohibited their executives from making the decisions, and taking the actions necessary to survive. Fans of Ed Schein will know his famous “Three Cultures of Management” paper, in which he describes the “Executive”, “Line Manager” and “Engineering” cultures, all of which must exist and be balanced against one another for an organization to survive. Schein argues that DEC was dominated by the engineering culture, which valued innovation and “elegant” design, over profits and operational efficiency. This engineering culture dominated even the top levels of DEC, where proposals to build PCs out of off the shelf parts that were readily available in the marketplace, were shot down because the machines were thought to be junk compared to the ones DEC could build themselves.
That DEC was able to survive for as long as it did was largely attributable to its ability to innovate in a field that was so new it had not yet coalesced around certain standard systems, software and networks. However, as the computer industry became in effect a commodity market, and the buyers began to value price over innovation, DEC found itself increasingly unable, and in fact, unwilling to compete. The engineering culture which valued innovation and required creative freedom, did not want to subject itself to the requirements of being a commodity player which demanded autocratic operational efficiency and control over how resources were allocated.
Although DEC is now long gone, even readers who were too young to use computers at the time of its demise will find familiar truths in this book. As the old saying goes, the fish in the tank does not see the water it is in. Neither do we often see the cultures in which we are ourselves embedded. The real lesson of this wonderful book is to show us how our corporate cultures often prohibit us from doing the right things, even when we can see them clearly. Sometimes culture is most easily visible in the things you need to discuss, but that are simply “not on the table” for discussion.
There are many lessons here too, for companies that seek to innovate new products and services, and how to balance the creative freedom desired by the engineering culture with the “money gene” culture of sound executive management. The names of companies that have failed to realize the full financial benefits of their technical innovations is too long to list here. But the DEC story is a must read for anyone who seeks to balance innovation with sustainable economic success in any organization.
“To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:” Ecclesiastes
First, I am grateful to Chris Snook for highly recommending this book. Also, I acknowledge that no brief commentary such as this could possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of information and insights that William Strauss and Neil Howe provide in abundance.
This book was first published in a hardbound edition in 1997, then in a softbound edition the following year. I suggest you keep this thought in mind when William Strauss and Neil Howe share their circa-2005 predictions that include tax rebellions throughout the United States in protest of governmental inefficiency and incompetence, global terrorism initiatives (e.g. blowing up an aircraft), foreign capital flight from U.S., and growing anarchy throughout the former Soviet republics. This is a research-driven book, as indicated by 25 pages of “Notes.”
Also, at least some of the material develops in much greater depth what Strauss and Howe previously introduced in Generations: A History of America’s Future (1991) and 13th-GEN (1993). I suggest that you check out the quantitative and bibliographical appendices available (Pages 455-519) in Strauss and Howe’s previous book, Generations.
Here is a representative selection of key points that caught my eye:
On Turnings: “The Fourth is a Crisis, a decisive era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with the new…The fourth Turning is history’s great discontinuity. It ends one epoch and begins another.” (Pages 3 and 6)
On the three ways that man has measured time: (i.e. chaotic, cyclical, and linear) “The great achievement of linear time has been to endow mankind with a purposeful confidence in its own self-improvement…Yet the great weakness of linear time is that it obliterates time’s recurrence and thus cats people off from the eternal – whether in nature, in each other, or in ourselves.” (Page 11)
On the Anglo-American Saeculum: “The saeculum is a seasonal cycle of history, roughly the length of a long life [i.e. 80-100 years], that explains the periodic recurrences of Awakenings and Crises throughout modernity. The Anglo-American saeculum dates back to the waning of the Middle Ages in the middle of the fifteenth century.” (Page 123)
On the seven prior Fourth Turnings in the Anglo-American lineage:
Wars of the Roses (1459-1487), Late Medieval Saeculum
Armada Crisis (1569-1594), Reformation Saeculum
Glorious Revolution (1675-1704), New World Saeculum
American Revolution (1860-1865), Civil War Saeculum
Great Depression and World War Two (1929-1946), Great Power Saeculum
“With the partial exception of the U.S. Civil War, Each Fourth Turning followed a similar morphology.” (Page 259)
On the circularity of life, but also its perpetuity: “Modern societies too often reject circles for straight lines between starts and finishes. Believers in linear progress, we feel the need to keep moving forward. The more we endeavor to defeat nature, the more profoundly we land at the mercy of its deeper rhythms.” (Page 329)
On empowerment by the next Fourth Turning: “We should not feel limited, but rather empowered by the knowledge that the Fourth Turning’s ekpyrosis [i.e. a Stoic belief in the periodic destruction of the cosmos by a great conflagration every Great Year] can have such decisive consequences. By lending structure to life and time, the seaculum makes human history all the more purposeful. A belief in foreseeable seasons and perceptible rhythms can inspire a society or an individual to do great things that might otherwise seem pointless.” (Page 332)
Throughout years of research and analysis, Strauss and Howe located patterns that recur over time and discovered the natural rhythms of social experience. They then shared what they learned in this book, first published 15 years ago. They help their reader to understand “what the cycles of history tell us about America’s next rendezvous with history.” Although I carefully re-read the several dozen passages I had highlighted before composing this review, I do not claim to understand, fully, everything in the book.
We cannot predict with seamless accuracy what will happen in months and years to come. However, I agree with William Strauss and Neil Howe that we can prepare for probable contingencies with initiatives guided and informed by the information insights, and wisdom they provide in this book.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. provides an appropriate conclusion to this review: “A true cycle…is self-generating. It cannot be determined, short of catastrophe, by external events…The roots of this cyclical self-sufficiency lie deep in the natural life of humanity. There is a cyclical pattern in organic nature – in the tides, in the seasons, in night and day, in the systole and diastole of the human heart.”