First Friday Book Synopsis

"…like CliffNotes on steroids…"

Ram Charan’s The Attacker’s Advantage: A book review by Bob Morris

Attacker's AdvantageThe Attacker’s Advantage: Turning Uncertainty into Breakthrough Opportunities
Ram Charan
PublicAffairs (2015)

This is the most valuable contribution to business thought leadership that Ram Charan has made…thus far.

I have read and reviewed all of the books that Dallas-based Ram Charan has written or co-written and am convinced that The Attacker’s Advantage is the most valuable…thus far. Why? Because the abundance of information, insights, and counsel that he provides can be of substantial assistance to almost anyone, at any level and in any area of the given enterprise, to improve their leadership and management skills. The title of the book refers to “the world of large-scale [i.e. high-impact] entrepreneurs who create [or recognize] a new need, scale it up quickly, and put a bend in the road for traditional players…The attacker’s advantage is the ability to detect ahead of others those forces that are radically reshaping your marketplace, then position your business to make the next move first.”

Those who read and then re-read) this book with appropriate care will accelerate their development of five essential capabilities:

1. Perceptual acuity
2. A mindset to see opportunity in uncertainty
3. The ability to see as new path forward and commit to it
4. Adeptness in managing the transition to the next path
5. Skill in making the organization steerable and agile

Each of these is an important WHAT that countless other business thinkers have already identified. Charan explains HOW while in process revealing the WHY.

Consider, for example, the importance of anomalies. Years ago, Isaac Asimov observed, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’” Charan has a great deal of value to say about the importance of anomalies (on Pages 50-57) when suggesting “what to watch for.” Any fool can connect dots. Those whom Charan characterizes as “catalysts” know which dots to connect, to be sure, but of much greater importance, they recognize and grasp the significance of potentialities and implications such as causal relationships. Catalysts constantly practice the skill of “sorting, sifting, and selecting what matters from the vast and changing external landscape.”

Once again as he does in so many of his previously published works, he makes brilliant use of reader-friendly devices such as a checklist of Takeaways for each of the four Parts. They serve as study guide questions. Another section, “IN THE NEXT CHAPTER…,” concludes each chapter, offering a head’s up to key material in the next chapter. And also, real-world exempla that include companies such as Tata Communication, LEGO Group, Kaiser Permanente, and Merck as well as executives that include (in alpha order) Marc Andreessen, Tim Berners-Lee, Larry Fink, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Ruben Mettler, Ralph Nader, Hal Sperlich, and Steve Schwarzman. As Charan carefully indicates, there are valuable lessons to be learned from all of them. It is also true that the reader-friendly devices will help to facilitate, indeed expedite frequent review of the most important material later.

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Charan’s coverage:

o The Essentials of Leading in Uncertainty (Pages 5-10)
o Redefining an Industrial Icon: GE (23-26)
o Five Examples of Catalysts (41-47)
o Seek Contrary Viewpoints (61-63)
o Be a Voracious Reader (71-73)
o Consumers Hold the Key (89-94)
o Removing the Blockages to a Path of Uncertainty (103-112)
o Benefits of the Joint Practice Session (133-137)
o The Joint Practice Session: Transparency and Coordination (131-133)
o A JPS (Joint Practice Session) in Financial Services (139-145)
o Identifying [Critical] Decision Nodes (157-161)
o Assigning the Leaders of Critical Nodes (161-164)
o Monitoring How the Nodes Are Working (166-172)
o Setting Short-Term Milestones (174-179)
o Keep Others with You (191-194)

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine can do full justice to the quality and value of the material that Ram Charan provides in this, his latest and as indicated, what I consider to be his most important work…thus far. I agree with him that “taking control of uncertainty is the fundamental leadership challenge of our time.” It is worth noting that the original meaning of the Chinese character for “crisis,” formulated centuries ago, is both “peril” and “opportunity.” Now and in months to come, uncertainty is certain to pose even greater challenges to leaders in all organizations, whatever their size and nature may be. Hence the importance of gaining and sustaining the attacker’s advantage. I urge those in organizations that now lack such an advantage to read and then re-read this book. Also, check out the resources here, especially the key capabilities assessment.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Left Brain, Right Stuff: A book review by Bob Morris

Left BrainLeft Brain, Right Stuff: How Leaders Make Winning Decisions
Phil Rosenzweig
PublicAffairs (2014)

Why understanding the decision making process as well as the roles of action and analysis “can improve the odds of success”

As I began to read this book, I was again reminded of passages in two others in which their authors address the same question that Phil Rosenzweig does: How to make better decisions? In Judgment (2009), Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis assert that what really matters “is not how many calls a leader gets right, or even what percentage of calls a leader gets right. Rather it is important how many of the important ones he or she gets right.” They go on to suggest that effective leaders “not only make better calls, but they are able to discern the really important ones and get a higher percentage of them right. They are better at a whole process that runs from seeing the need for a call, to framing issues, to figuring out what is critical, to mobilizing and energizing the troops.”

More recently, in Judgment Calls (2012), Tom Davenport and Brooke Manville explain how and why decisions made by a Great Organization tend to be much better than those made by a Great Leader. Why? While conducting rigorous and extensive research over a period of many years, they discovered — as Laurence Prusak notes in the Foreword — “that no one was looking into the workings of what we term organizational judgment — the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.”

My own opinion is that this process resembles a crucible of intensive scrutiny by several well-qualified persons. Moreover, the eventual decision is the result of what Roger Martin characterizes, in The Opposable Mind (2009), as “integrative thinking.” That is, each of those involved has “the predisposition and the capacity to hold two [or more] diametrically opposed ideas” in mind and then “without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other,” helps to “produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea.”

Rosenzweig asserts — and I agree — that what he calls “winning decisions” combine two very different skills. He calls them left brain and right stuff. “Left brain is shorthand for a deliberate and analytical approach to problems solving,” a process that inevitably involves asking the right questions and then answering them correctly. Otherwise, there is the very serious danger to which Peter Drucker referred decades ago: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

“Great decisions also demand a willingness to take risks, to push boundaries and to go beyond what has been done before. They call for something we call the right stuff.” That means “summoning high levels of confidence, even levels that might seem excessive, but that are useful to achieve high performance.” Left brain and right stuff may seem like opposites “but they’re complementary. For many decisions they’re both essential…Great decisions call for a capacity for considered and careful reasoning, and also a willingness to take outsize risks.”

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Rosenzweig’s coverage.

o The Key to great decisions: Left Brain, Right Stuff (Pages 15-22)
o The key to great decisions: Left Brain, Right Stuff (Pages 15-22)
o Control issues (23-44)
o Performance: Absolute and Relative (45-62)
o Overconfidence in the here and now: Not one thing but three (88-93)
o Barriers of nature or barriers of engineering? (118-121)
o Apollo missions (149-154)
o Authenticity, reconsidered (154-158)
o Decision models (165-190)
o  The Texas size shoot-out for AT&T Wireless (206-213)
o Cloud computing/VMware (224-229)
o Managing risks, seeking rewards (229-233)
o Another look at laboratory evidence (234-237)
o Beyond rational and irrational (244-247)

With regard to “Better questions for winning decisions” (247-252), Rosenzweig asserts, “To make great decisions, we need above all to develop the capacity to question, to go beyond the first-order observations and pose incisive second-order questions. An awareness of common errors and cognitive biases is only a start.” He poses seven lead questions that have been previously stated or at least implied throughout his lively and eloquent narrative, accompanied by a few others that will also help us to drill down past symptoms, assumptions, biases, etc. so that we can identify root causes. This is a process of both elimination and simplification, one that is much easier to describe than it is to conduct just as questions such as “Are we making a decision about something we cannot control, or are we able to influence outcomes?” are much easier to ask than to answer.

Long ago, Voltaire suggested that we cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it. Phil Rosenzweig is among those who tenaciously seek the truth but seldom (if ever) claim to have found it. With all due respect to recent research in neuroscience, there is still much to be learned about how to make better decisions. In this book, however, the information, insights, and counsel provided increase our understanding of how not to.

Saturday, February 1, 2014 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Drucker Difference: Complaining about uncertainty? Get over it

Rick Wartzman

I agree with Peter Drucker that no business, regardless of what the federal government does, can expect much control over the major forces shaping the world.

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Rick Wartzman for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine “The Drucker Difference” series. To read the complete article, check out other resources, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

*     *     *

If there is one thing you can be certain about, it’s that Peter Drucker wouldn’t countenance all the complaining by business people about uncertainty.

They’re directing their grousing primarily at the federal government, as illustrated by an interview I caught last week on National Public Radio with Andrew Liveris, the chief executive of Dow Chemical (DOW). Commenting just before President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, Liveris reeled off a litany of concerns that many American chief executive officers have expressed in recent months.

“Well, I not only have high taxes; I have uncertain taxes,” he said. “Right now, I have more regulations coming at me that are not fact-based, not science-based, not data-based. I actually don’t even know what my costs are going to be in the next five years. And so I’m sitting back waiting for regulatory reform, and the government, of course, is now engaged on that—health care and the uncertainty around the health-care bill and what’s going to end up happening there. Energy policy—we’ve got lots of uncertainty in the energy policy regimen. I mean, I can keep going, but that’s half a dozen.”

It’s not that Drucker would have felt entirely unsympathetic. “Modern government has become ungovernable,” Drucker asserted in his 1968 book The Age of Discontinuity, hitting on a theme that he never backed away from as the decades wore on. “There is no government today that can still claim control of its bureaucracy and of its various agencies.”

Drucker also believed that in the grand scheme of things, government’s influence tends to be relatively minor. (Unless, I suppose, you’re a federal contractor and your primary customer is Uncle Sam.) Forces outside the public arena act as the main drivers of the most profound changes shaping our world, including the continuing transition to a knowledge age.


“If this century proves one thing, it is the futility of politics,” Drucker wrote in 1994. “It is the social transformations, like ocean currents deep below the hurricane-tormented surface of the sea, that have had the lasting, indeed the permanent, effect. They, rather than all the violence of the political surface, have transformed not only the society but also the economy, the community, and the polity we live in.” Drucker added that “headline-making political events” would remain in this lesser role well into the 21st century.

Yet beyond all that there exists another, more fundamental reason to stop griping: Uncertainty is simply part of doing business. Executives need to manage uncertainty, not whine about it.

In fact, ever since the economy shifted from agriculture to manufacturing, uncertainty has been part of the equation. “The farmer knew that if he did not have a corn crop by the time the frost came, he would not have a corn crop at all that year,” Drucker wrote in his 1950 book The New Society. “The husbandman knew that if the ewes failed to lamb in the spring, he would not be able to restock his herd. But in industrial production it cannot be predicted with any certainty when a product or service will be successful. Whether it will be successful … we call ‘risk proper;’ but whether it will be successful in one year, five years, or in 20 years is ‘uncertainty.'”

More than 50 years later, with the bulk of the nation’s blue-collar manufacturing jobs supplanted by knowledge and service work, the amount of haziness managers face has only increased.

“Uncertainty—in the economy, society, politics—has become so great as to render futile, if not counterproductive, the kind of planning most companies still practice: forecasting based on probabilities,” Drucker wrote in his 1995 book Managing in a Time of Great Change.

So what then, is a bewildered executive to do?

[To read the complete article, please click here.]

*     *     *

Rick Wartzman is executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University. He spent the first 20 years of his career as a reporter, editor, and columnist for The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times. His most recent book, Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, was published by PublicAffairs in September 2008.

Saturday, April 28, 2012 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Drucker Difference: Making performance reviews worthwhile

Rick Wartzman

Yes, You Can Make Performance Reviews Worthwhile

….and less odious for all parties. The key is to concentrate first and foremost on employees’ strengths.

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Rick Wartzman for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine’s “The Drucker Difference” series (April 8, 2011). To read the complete article, check out other resources, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

*     *     *

A few weeks ago, the head of the federal Office of Personnel Management took on what for many people is the bane of organizational life: performance reviews.

When it comes to setting employee standards, giving appraisals, and rating and compensating people, the processes now in place across the government “have dehumanized management to a degree that we can no longer ignore,” the office’s director, John Berry, declared in a speech delivered at a major interagency conference.

Peter Drucker saw this problem long ago, and not just in the public sector. “For a superior to focus on weakness, as our appraisals require him to do, destroys the integrity of his relationship with his subordinates,” Drucker wrote in his 1967 classic The Effective Executive.

For Drucker, in fact, assessing an employee’s performance should always begin with someone’s strengths, not with his or her weaknesses—an emphasis picked up decades later by Marcus Buckingham, Gallup’s Tom Rath, and others. “The effective executive makes strength productive,” Drucker asserted. “He knows that one cannot build on weakness.”

And yet most traditional appraisal systems, Drucker explained, are based on the work of clinical psychologists. “The clinician is a therapist trained to heal the sick,” Drucker noted. “He is legitimately concerned with what is wrong, rather than what is right, with the patient.”

Behind the Murky Vail

This week’s threat of a government shutdown aside, the federal performance-management system is full of idiosyncrasies, including a civil service bureaucracy that largely rewards longevity in a job. Most companies don’t have to deal with such strictures or the messy politics often associated with them. But one frustration common to many enterprises—whether a business, government operation, or nonprofit—is the lack of transparency and consistency that people sense when they are evaluated.

“For many employees, performance standards are too unclear and subjective,” Berry said. “And then you don’t fully know what’s expected of you or how you’re doing.” Among the reforms Berry is calling for the government to implement are detailed yardsticks that are “objective, aligned to agency mission and goals,” and have true “employee buy-in.”

Drucker certainly would have agreed with this approach. “One can measure the performance of a man only against specific performance expectations,” he wrote, adding that the best kind of review begins with a statement of the key contributions expected from the employee, along with a record of how he or she has fulfilled these particular goals.

A Series of Questions

But Drucker didn’t stop there. After analyzing how the worker has (or hasn’t) met these objectives, the ideal appraisal in Drucker’s eyes would ask a handful of questions, the first three of which would zero in on an individual’s strengths: What has he or she done well? What, therefore, is he or she likely to do well in the future? What new knowledge or skills must he or she acquire in order to coax the full benefit from his or her strengths?

It is only the next set of questions that veers in a different direction: If I had a son or daughter, would I be willing to have him or her work under or alongside this person? If yes, why? If no, why not?

That’s the entire form, top to bottom. “This appraisal actually takes a much more critical look … than the usual procedure does,” Drucker wrote. But it concentrates on what people naturally do well and should do even more of. At the same time, it positions weaknesses so they are “seen as limitations to the full use” of an employee’s talents, not as deficiencies that one needs to obsess over.

For all of his attention on the positive over the negative, Drucker was no softie regarding staff. He believed that employers should make every job as “demanding and big” as possible. That’s because it’s only when jobs challenge people that their full strengths emerge, he said. And only if there’s scope will “any strength that is relevant to the task … produce significant results.”

[To read the complete article, check out other resources, and obtain subscription information, please click here.]

*     *     *

Rick Wartzman is executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University. He spent the first 20 years of his career as a reporter, editor, and columnist for The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times. His most recent book, Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, was published by PublicAffairs in September 2008.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment



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