Photo by John Ryan on Flickr.
Ten years ago Jim Collins published a book that would change the way many organisations would do business: Good to Great. You’ve heard about it, maybe you even read it. The book gives a recipe for sustainable success, businesswise, based on a number of companies that outperformed their competitors over a long period of time. Jim Collins told millions how to be Great, as opposed to simply Good.
The ten years since
Unfortunately, the years since 2001 brought trouble: The web 2.0 revolution, financial crises and the never-diminishing effect of Moore’s Law. The world changed, and not all of Jim Collins’s great companies managed to stay on top of things.
This week I spent some time with Anders Sorman-Nilsson, an expert on the disruptive nature of change for business. In a recent video on his blog, he explains how the years since 2001 have made some of the great companies become obsolete, or even go bust.
It very much seems that although you were brilliant the entire 20th century, it can be a matter of months in the 21st to have your organisation disappear into oblivion. What made you great in yesteryear might make you obsolete today.
And I don’t think this is limited to the moneymakers of the world. Museums, theatres and even social causes can become obsolete just as easily if they’re not designed to deal with the menacing effects of Moore’s Law and the like.
Foxes and hedgehogs
Jim Collins tells the story of the fox and the hedgehog. Every day the cunning fox tries to eat the hedgehog when he goes to drink water at a nearby pond. Every day, the fox tries something different, but every day the hedgehog simply roles up and stings the fox. The moral of the story: be a hedgehog. Find the thing you’re great at, find a way to make it profitable, and your organisation will last forever.
In the 20th century, being a hedgehog worked brilliantly. However, if you’re going to pick a mascot for your organisation AD 2011, many recommend the fox.
In his book The Black Swan Nassim Nicholas Taleb, for instance, makes a compelling case for the fox. When the complexity of the world increases, so does its unpredictability. The fox, constantly changing, always experimenting, never resting, embraces this uncertainty. The fox is much more likely to adapt to a disruptive change. The fox, in short, might just be better off in the 21st century.
Great foxy culture
In culture customers don’t seem as fickle as in – for instance – the smartphone business. People went to see the Mona Lisa and listen to Chopin fifty years ago, and they will in fifty years. Of course, that’s our luck; we work with stuff valuable enough to have survived the ages, so while an iPhone 4S is outdated in a year, Shakespeare will stay on stage well into the future.
Unfortunately we operate in a world full of unpredictable change. Who will go to see Shakespeare or Chopin, when world-class performances of their work can be brought into our living room, on demand, in 3D, for free, without coughing and sneezing neighbours? (More on that, later.)
In order to not become obsolete, cultural institutions in the 21st century need to think beyond the great stuff that helped us on in the past. We have to change the way we do business. We have to experiment and innovate. We have to become foxes.