Breakthroughs, Innovation, Creativity – What American Business Needs

Is American business capable of a return to leadership in the world? We have been on a seriously “bad slope” for many key financial and other indicators for a very long time.

Business at all levels needs to improve, even our entrepreneurial businesses in order to compete. Our corporations are in particular need of re-thinking everything.

Introduction and Common Concerns of Business Guru’s

I selected nine well-known business authors of the many I have studied over the years to sort through the topics that they emphasized in their writing. My initial goal was to find out if they had common concerns and how important those things have been since they wrote their books. Finally, what remains as crucial for American business in the future? These points are important for very large Fortune 100 companies as well as companies under $100 Million. I have worked for companies in both categories although typically some things need more or less emphasis depending on the size of the company.

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The authors used include:
o W. Edwards Deming
o Peter Drucker
o Michael Abrashoff
o Colin Powell
o Lance Secretan
o Stephen Covey
o Jim Collins
o Wess Roberts
o Michael Kennedy

I will refer to these authors as gurus or business gurus.

There were 45 different topics, which I believed were important in their writings. The number of topics these authors emphasized in their writings surprised me. I also chose to include certain short topics, which contained great meaning, are actually fundamental, and typically much needed good business philosophies. Such things as Stephen Covey’s, “Begin with the End in Mind.”

My background for this work is over 35 years in business and now doing consulting for business with an emphasis on breakthroughs. I have had a wonderfully interesting career (now it seems that way) which included working as an engineer, manager of technology, manager of various product programs and on into various executive positions.
The guru’s have really hit the nail on the head regarding the subjects they selected. You might say the subjects are obvious and in general, that is why they are so powerful. Yes, these things are obvious, yet not well handled or conveniently forgotten by American management. They do as one of my business colleagues used to say, “Let’s go after the fat rabbits.” Unfortunately, American business frequently only sees one fat rabbit, namely “today’s bottom line.” Indeed the short-term gains seen by the mortgage masters have been one of many “short-sighted” failings for American business. That catastrophe would fall under the root cause of “Stop Greed” as an example of a topic heralded for years by many of the gurus. This is an area where there was guru foresight for what has become a significant problem. Just as all corporations and even smaller business provide sexual harassment training so do executives, need training in walking the line between profits and ethics. Why is that? It is because there so much is at stake for America. It no longer can be profits at any cost!

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As we look at some of the guru’s, we can see many predicting the 2008, 2009 financial catastrophe. There were no very specific predictions but there were warnings. This is a good time to get the attention of business, as we all feel more vulnerable. If there had been no banking/mortgage catastrophe there were plenty of other fundamental business problems leading to an eventual recession. The fear should not be the recession but that the likely reduced time between recessions has a bootstrapping business and psychological effect. Those fundamental warning signs were the loss of American jobs to foreign countries, the on-going import/export imbalance, the ownership of American debt by foreign countries and the list can be quite long. There are many sub-categories for each of the mentioned signs such as the changing character of the type of jobs being “shipped-out.” Even America’s traditional hold on high technology jobs has substantially eroded.

American business has missed two essential concepts:

1) Business understands the big issues related to growth but ignores or violates the sound principles for various reasons.

2) The day-day business issues that often relate to people and/or customers receive “lip service” resulting in lost opportunities. Frequently these opportunities are the outcome of innovatively managing the day-day business. Management has no vision of what is possible, so the never see the “miss.”

Whatever we discuss related to significantly improving American business, there would still be one obvious problem! Namely, it will be difficult to get executive management to change. Therefore, we will make some suggestions relative to accomplishing that essential piece.

This Article:
Out of the 45 common threads or concerns, I selected 5 for this article and discuss them briefly.

Future Articles:
o The second five things, the most important things are a function of your business and situation. These may be the most important for you.
o Looking across all 45 of the points there will be a summary of the (6) most important things for future business revival of America. This will be a mix of the business guru’s views and more prominently my experience with over 50 companies worldwide.
o As promised, how to get companies, specifically the top executives to do the right things.

Five selected common threads, concerns from the business gurus.

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Provide Jobs
 is more of an attitude that I learned in person from Dr. W. Edwards Deming and it was a noble but also a practical idea, which he stated as, “you should be in business to create jobs.”I had heard many reasons to be in business related to creating shareholder value but this was radically different. American business would rarely have this in their mission statement. Nonetheless, besides being a noble goal it makes a lot of sense. If jobs were at the centerpiece or an important part of a company’s goals it can provide a different and positive perspective for the employees. It would strengthen the idea that, “people are important to this company.” Profits mean growth and improvements for employees and jobs for the community.

This goal is so much different from positioning the company for sale or cutting costs first by cutting people. Good managers keep experienced, trained, valued employees and find other ways to cut costs. The turn around comes and you are ready! Even in poor times, you are thinking about growth. Good management has the fortitude to make the job cuts but after they have exhausted all other possibilities.

Drive out fear 
is also a Deming Principle (but also adamantly shared by other business gurus). This is a well-respected principle, almost universally accepted, and almost universally discarded in practice by managers. There are many American managers managing by fear and they know better. They would hate to be managed themselves in that manner.

One manager of a fortune 50 company used to tell his team several times each week, “We must accomplish this goal or I will be fired.” Actually the team admired the manager but this one thing ruined all his good characteristics and resulted in a myriad of problems. There are many more severe forms of fear in business and they can be very destructive and terribly unproductive.

American companies need to have a long-term view of their business.

Few American companies have this view and it has become exceedingly worse under global pressures. My favorite quote from Henry Ford is, “If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.” American business has gone so far down the immediate gratification road that they frequently do not believe in themselves and thus think they cannot do a thing and thus they do not. CEO’s, presidents, boards of directors all seek short-term goals. To think otherwise is radical and yet it is America’s only hope. This is radically different but it can be accomplished and quite easily, albeit at times painfully.

Timely response to changing markets is something American companies must learn how to do.

The obvious way is to, “have and maintain a leadership position” and one important component is continuous innovation. All the things mentioned above are in the background of a culture that succeeds in innovation. They are often missing and so innovation is not what it could be. You know, one of the worst things about poor management is that employees spend considerable time talking about the poor nature of their management instead of doing their work. One of the most sobering observations is that if a company does not have a culture of innovation there is little innovation. There may be some innovation but you have no idea what you are missing. Such a culture of innovation requires a great deal more than the items listed above. Those things are as they say part of the cost of admission to the “innovation club.” I can tell you and I will about some companies who do well with little innovation, but there is a good reason.

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Develop a Proactive Culture or Nature and this must be in two senses.

We want employees to be proactive but also the business needs to have a proactive nature. How many opportunities to gain new business have been lost? How many opportunities did you miss to institute a new process or follow-up on some a client because you were too busy? Did those delays cause you to miss additional opportunities? A simple but frequent case is waiting until you hear from a customer (very reactive) and never receiving the call. Some of the most significant pieces of business and breakthroughs (of all kinds) have come as the result of being proactive in cases where the opportunity or benefit seemed small.

A proactive person is on the phone, in the car, on the train or plane. A proactive person balances his/her personal and business life. They do this by being creative in everything. For example by managing their e-mail and not allowing their e-mail to manage them. In a proactive culture, people find creative ways to manage their e-mail and then help others to see the losses in productivity and solutions.

How many times have there been “unsaids” which could have led to important breakthroughs? The “unsaids” exist because the culture has real or perceived restrictions to speaking out and fear may be a component. A proactive culture is not disruptive but considerate, attentive and in the case of “speaking out” it will be appropriate, encouraged, and even expected. We want proactive people but we do things to kill the concept and consequently damage our futures.

My career includes leadership positions with four different companies over 35 years. This includes companies from $50M to greater than $15B. During that time, I have been involved with operations in North America and abroad as well as improving our customer and supply base. I learned a great deal from more than 50 companies (customers, suppliers and potential acquisitions) as they informally shared many non-proprietary aspects of their business philosophies. During those years, I was involved with over a dozen different major consulting firms for a variety of different business and engineering projects. In addition, my keen interest in business led me to study various different business gurus.