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Become a rebel - save your company from strategy death
on 16 September 2000
This is a remarkable book. Remarkable, not in that it tackles a fresh new issue, for the problem of how to stimulate innovation, enterprise and initiative within the staid and dusty board rooms of corporate America has been addressed by many authors, most notably Rosabeth Moss Kanter in her seminal book "The Change Masters (Uniwin 1983)" wrote - "In every sector, old and new, I hear a renewed recognition of the importance of people...Thus, individuals actually need to count more, because it is people within the organisation who come up with new ideas, who develop creative responses, and who push for change before opportunities disappear..."
This is a remarkable book because of its neon-light style delivery of the message that innovation comes from individuals who dare to think differently. Written in the fast paced style of a Jack Higgins thriller, it takes the reader through a breath-taking 314 page journey - from the hellish turmoil of stalled American enterprise to the promise of a framework that when applied in the right way would lead to the dawn of a vibrant new epoch of heroic success. Hamel's style is fantastic. He uses what I call "Marketish" - with banner headline grabbing sound bites and stylised echoes of prophetic messages. He does indeed engage the reader in a manner that many of the more docile writers of management books fail to achieve.
The first two chapters are devoted to a systematic dissection of the failures of corporate America in generating what Hamel calls "new wealth". The fabulous style that grabs the attention starts with the first chapter entitled "The End of Progress". In this chapter Gary Hamel takes the reader through a breathless journey designed to prove that incremental thinking (progress) no longer works, no longer are traditional strategic planning, careful market research and prudent financial plans sufficient, but "rule-breaking" thinking and imagination beyond the impossible are required to survive the break neck speed of the new economy. As Hamel prophesises with assured tones of a speechwriter for Tony Blair, "Somewhere out there is a bullet with your company's name on it. Somewhere out there is a competitor, unborn and unknown, that will render your strategy obsolete." Hamel demonstrates in this chapter that industry revolutionary like Freeserve, IKEA, Charles Schwab, Amazon and Hotmail take the entire business concept, rather than a product or service, as the starting point for innovation. He warns that BPR, TQM and other incremental 1990s methods of improvement will no longer work in the post-industrial landscape. In his inimitable style Hamel writes, "Those who live by the sword will be shot by those who don't."
In the second chapter entitled "Rising Expectations, Diminishing Returns", Hamel incisively exposes how corporations in America and elsewhere have systematically mislead their investors into thinking that the strategies they were following are creating new wealth. Again drawing heavily from examples of failures of strategies like share buy-backs and mega-mergers, Hamel shows the root cause of why CEOs resort to such desperate measures - it is catastrophic strategy failure. He likens mega-merger to dinosaurs mating. Hamel asserts, "While some of these couplings are propelled by truly strategic considerations...many are simply the last gasp of cost cutting CEOs..." The other important points he makes in this chapter is the tradition of industry norms and industry models, this he asserts leads to strategy convergence and eventually strategy death. Following industry norms might be fine until a revolutionary, with a new business model that breaks all the industry rules comes along and blows your company out of the water. Hamel asserts that what is needed is business concept innovation.
Most strategy books are like encyclopaedias, telling you all about how car engines work rather than giving step by step guide on how your skills can be applied to disassembling and fixing a car engine. Hamel achieves this by taking you through a process of disassembling your strategies, your deep held beliefs and shows how you can be the rebel who saves your firm from strategy failure. Hamel provides the tools required to dive into the depths of your organisation and the insight into the skills required to hold your breath long enough to surface with the pearls locked away in its bowels. He provides a framework of creativity, which you can then use to string the pearls you have found into beautiful jewellery that your customers would die for.
The next two chapters deal with the vexing question of how does one become a rebel? Is one born a rebel? Are there examples of industry rebels? Hamel gathers the wisdom of rebels like Ken Kutaragi who fought against all odds to make Sony executives take the PlayStation seriously; rebels like Georges Dupont-Roc who turned Shell from a sleepy fossil fuel company into a renewable energy radical - to provide a handbook for rebels. But one might say so what's new about this book, reams have been written about "skunkworks". Are there no companies that embrace radical thinking and strategy innovation as its central culture? Is there no pragmatics on how to design and construct such organisations?
If you want you can create organisations or change yours where strategy innovation, rapidly out manoeuvring your competitors, creating ways to satisfy customers who did not even know you existed, become the very fabric that holds your organisation together. Hamel shows how this can be done, what are the design rules, what metrics you need to measure yourself when you no longer have competitors, what are the rules when the only organisation you have to compete against is your own.
Although this book may not appeal to the more traditional thinkers among the business strategy community, I think it is a must read for all CEOs caught in the whirlwind of what is now being called the new economy. Hopefully some will put what Hamel is preaching into practice - they are what he affectionately calls the "grey haired rebels."
by Dev Sen, London, UK