What can we learn about business from America?
Columnist Stuart Crainer delve into why some of the brightest thinking still comes from the USA
Fred Taylor must have been a difficult man to live with. He was a restless tinkerer, a solver of problems. Back in the early years of the last century, he patented an ‘apparatus for moving growing trees and the like’. He also developed a revolutionary power hammer that was used by steel companies. After winning the doubles at the US tennis championships, he designed his own tennis racket and a new tennis net. He came up with a Y-shaped golf putter, developed a new irrigation system for putting greens and much, much more. On his business card it said, ‘Consultant to management’.
Taylor was the first great American business thinker. His idea of ‘scientific management’ changed the way organisations managed their people and led to the development of management as a discipline and management consulting as a profession.
Over the last century, American business thinkers and their ideas have dominated the business world, from Tom Peters to Adam Grant, Rosabeth Moss Kanter to Seth Godin, Philip Kotler to Renée Mauborgne, and Richard D’Aveni to Rita McGrath. The reason we manage and lead organisations in the ways that we do is largely down to Americans – plus a small number of Japanese thinkers, an even smaller number of Europeans and a surprisingly substantial Canadian contingent. The business school world is still dominated by the great US institutions such as Harvard, Wharton, Tuck, Stanford and Darden. The business book bestseller lists are chiefly populated by Americans. Indeed, Americans basically invented the business book genre – from Dale Carnegie to In Search of Excellence. And if you’re seeking a headline speaker for your next corporate event, your first port of call is likely to be an American master of the keynote.
And there is every sign that the future will also be shaped mainly by American thinkers. It is true that the world of business is more global than ever before but, when it comes to business ideas, the Americans still hold sway and are likely to continue to do so. The big ideas of recent times have been lean and agile. They have their roots in the American tech industry, and the best articulators of the concepts – people such as serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Blank – are American. No change there. But whose ideas are we likely to be poring over in the near future?
American thinkers seem more ready to make the bold calls and to make sense of the broad sweep of our reality
Decoding the future
America remains the world’s leading source of tech ideas. And if you want to make sense of the technology maelstrom, the brightest American minds usually have the answers. The thinking stars of tech include Amy Webb, professor of strategic foresight at New York University’s Stern School of Business, who calls herself a ‘quantitative futurist’. Her 2019 book, The Big Nine: How the tech titans and their thinking machines could warp humanity, fires a warning shot about the implications of AI and the overwhelming power of the ‘big nine’ corporations. (Before you ask, the nine firms controlling the future of AI are Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, IBM and Facebook from America, and Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent from China.)
Also making sense of tech are Marshall Van Alstyne and Geoff Parker. They are essential reading on what they describe as ‘the platform revolution’. Every big tech company proclaims itself a platform or aspires to be a platform, and Van Alstyne and Parker explain what that actually means. As is usually the case, the reality behind the hyperbole is more nuanced and manageable. Van Alstyne’s research also provides new insights into the dark world of fake news.
Of course, the big tech question is where it leaves us poor humans. In the first flood of dystopian articles about the impact of AI, human beings were pushed to one side, collateral damage to progress. Now, thinkers are trying to make sense of how technology and people can happily co-exist. Paul Daugherty and James Wilson are at the cutting edge of AI research and development at the global consulting firm Accenture. In Human+Machine: Reimagining work in the age of AI, they demonstrate that the essence of the AI paradigm shift is the transformation of all business processes within an organisation, and they provide a leader’s guide to success in the new age of AI.
If tech is an obvious area of American expertise, the next category of ideas is more of a surprise: the self. There is a generation of American thinkers who are making sense of how we as individuals can navigate the brave new world of social media, the gig economy, monster global corporations, insecurity and ambiguity – while remaining sane and successful. In this space, Whitney Johnson gives people the tools to ‘disrupt yourself’, Alexandra Levit argues that ‘humanity works’ and explains how, Tasha Eurich explores the connection between self-awareness and success and the mechanics of becoming more self-aware, and Dorie Clark provides an up-to-date twist on personal branding.
A big part of this is the rise and rise of coaching to become a multi-billion-dollar global industry. The chief evangelist for leadership coaching is Marshall Goldsmith, who racks up more air miles than almost anyone else alive and has created a unique network of global coaches who are given access to his reservoir of coaching knowledge and who collaborate with each other. Among the stars in this network is Sanyin Siang of Duke University, whose most recent work looks at parenting as an act of leadership and how to develop teams of leaders with a former four-star army general.
Perhaps the stand-out and most challenging idea in this field comes from Nilofer Merchant, in the shape of ‘onlyness’. A former Silicon Valley executive turned business thinker, Merchant defines onlyness as that “spot in the world only you stand in, a function of your distinct history and experiences, visions and hopes”. She maintains that truly understanding your own uniqueness is the most powerful route forward personally and professionally.
The next area of big ideas is one where Americans have traditionally cornered the market in wisdom: organisations. From Henry Ford to IBM, Sears to Walmart, Americans know the ins and outs of making big corporations deliver results.
Probably the most stimulating modern take on getting corporate results comes from Tiffani Bova, the growth and innovation evangelist at the US cloud-based software company Salesforce. Her breakthrough concept is ‘growth IQ’. She has identified ten simple paths to growth – customer experience, customer base penetration, market acceleration, product expansion, customer and product diversification, optimised sales, minimised defections, partnerships, co-opetition and unconventional strategies. Simple to list, difficult to deliver. Bova argues that successful growth strategy relies on choosing the right sequence and combination, and that the biggest error companies make is to believe that there is just one big thing that will deliver the growth they need.
But organisations are changing, and the person who makes the most sense on their future shape is Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson. Best known for her pioneering work on teaming, innovation and psychological safety, her latest work examines what she calls ‘the fearless organisation’, which champions engagement and candour to create psychological safety and high performance. These ideas are making the leap from nice-to-haves to essential characteristics.
From Henry Ford to IBM, Sears to Walmart, Americans know the ins and outs of making big corporations deliver results
Let’s be honest
The candour theme is also the big message in the most powerful management document of recent years. It is not a bestselling book, but the Netflix culture deck, which was published in 2009 and outlines how the culture of one of the world’s most successful firms is managed. The company culture is built around what it calls ‘radical candour’, a degree of openness in communication that is, for the uninitiated, hugely challenging. There are also things such as the ‘keeper test’, in which a manager has to contemplate, “Which of my people, if they told me they were leaving for a similar job at a peer company, would I fight to keep?”
Netflix is in many ways the archetypal American company of our times. It is a thoughtful and hugely successful organisation built around clearly communicated values. But it is also a highly demanding working environment that people appear either to love or hate.
A new era
In the end, Americans in business have always appreciated that business is the exercise of power. Offering a fresh take on this are Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms. Heimans, co-founder and CEO of Purpose, a public-benefit corporation, and Timms, president of New York’s Lincoln Center, talk of ‘new power’ and chart the changing nature of power, as it moves from being leader-driven, self-protected and inaccessible, to open, participatory and peer-driven.
The United States of Brilliant Business Ideas continues to have a huge influence on how managers manage wherever they are in the world. One reason for this is that American thinkers seem more ready to make the bold calls and to make sense of the broad sweep of our reality. They bring in-built confidence to their thinking about the world’s problems, and they believe in solutions. In business, that belief goes a long way. Fred Taylor would be proud.
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