Business, IT Leaders Still Have Time for Big Ideas

A Harvard Business Review editor discusses some management concepts that could be useful this year

What's the big idea? In the March issue of the Harvard Business Review, its editors ask that question as they look back over the past year. They came up with seven big management ideas for 2001, and senior editor Julia Kirby talked about some of them with Computerworld's Kathleen Melymuka.

Q: With the business world in survival mode, who has time for big ideas right now?


A:
We approached this project thinking there wouldn't be a whole lot. We felt the year had been so challenging that even before Sept. 11 people were hunkering down. But maybe adversity breeds creative thinking, because we ended up with 37 really serious contenders for the list. We got it down to seven with a lot of discussion about which would have the most lasting effect on the practice of management.


Q: I like the idea of the emergence of "everyday leaders." What makes them different?


A:
They get things done by working behind the scenes more than [by] putting themselves in the spotlight. That's often the most effective way of making change happen, but at the cost of not getting the credit personally. That's what they're good at. They're dedicated to making change happen rather than building their own resumes.


Q: Where will the next generation of these leaders come from?



Julia Kirby, senior editor at Harvard Business Review
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Julia Kirby, senior editor at Harvard Business Review

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A:
That's a fascinating question. What can we expect to see from the generation of failed dot-coms? Will it be a nightmare as they all come back looking like the prodigal son? Will they return with too much attitude and chips on their shoulders, or have they experienced priceless lessons about opportunity and risk-taking?


I'll be interested to see if they'll be a generation of unbelievable leaders forged in the fire, or just a lost generation—like horses spoiled for real work.


Q: Another one of these big ideas is the realization that the Internet is more about businesses than individuals. We could have told you that!


A:
It's like [author] William Gibson's line, "The future is already here; it's just unevenly distributed." For some segments of the population—like your readers—some of these ideas are not new, but not everyone has come around.


Q: Given that the rest of the world is catching on, what are some of the business opportunities you see?


A:
The opportunities and risks are like those in any situation where there is some convergence on a standard or [where] an infrastructure is coming into place that didn't exist before. There's a lot of drudgery that no longer has to be performed, and that frees up attention and resources for things that can provide advantage.


If I don't have to build my own road, I can think about improving cars. But if you were getting a competitive advantage out of your own standard approach, you'll be forced to move away from that and think about how you can succeed in this different environment.



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This is the latest in a series of monthly discussions with authors of articles in the Harvard Business Review on topics of interest to IT managers.















Q: You say the pendulum may be swinging back on notions of the best approaches to customer service. How so?


A:
The mantra has become "customer-centric," "customer-driven." This idea is something of a backlash we've seen percolating over the past year: the sense that customers aren't always right, or maybe that delighting a customer doesn't happen when you ask, "What would delight you?" and do it.


That's not how you win a friend or get someone to fall in love with you. Instead, you need to understand at a deeper level what delights customers. Otherwise, you're abdicating your responsibility as a source of innovation. Every really major marketing coup in the recent past has not been customer-driven. Who asked for Beanie Babies?


Q: Another big idea: Games are for losers - meaning that honesty is in. Outside of what's happening with Enron Corp., I'd like to think that most business leaders have been reasonably honest. Am I naive?


A:
It's not a breakthrough that businesspeople should be honest, but there's been a disturbing tolerance of—and even collusion with—some forms of dishonesty. We were in a situation where people were like Capt. Renault in Casablanca: "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here!" And we'd all wink and laugh and say, "Sign me up for another 50 shares."


Q: And this is changing?


A:
We're seeing a tolerance shift. We're not going from black to white, but there's a really important shift in the gray area.


Q: Why is this shift happening?


A:
I don't think it's simply because investors have been burned or that tolerance of that kind of dishonesty has stopped. It may have something to do with a post-Sept. 11 wanting to have more meaning, more authenticity. We can't piece out why this is happening, but it really does seem like people are tired of game-playing.


Q: It was cool to be cynical?


A:
Yes, and now it's not so much.


Q: You talk about the tension between nurturing creativity and replicating best processes. This is certainly a big idea in IT. Which side is winning?


A:
Both sides have been losing lately because of misguided efforts to bring them together. People have been trying to get more rigorous and disciplined about creative processes—trying to re-engineer the creative process.


Q: Sounds like an oxymoron.


A:
Yes, on the face of it. But a lot of people want to replicate past successes, but they also want to monkey with the process because each situation is different. So they're being creative in the replication, and that produces mediocre results. The idea is to not mix our approaches.

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Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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