Saturday, June 16, 2007

Built To Last, by Collins and Porras

Built To Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, by Collins and Porras

The subtitle of this book is Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, but that turns out to be a better description of the content than Built To Last. This is a large case study of companies that have been successful for over 50 years (American Express, Merck, Nordstrom, 3M, IBM, Disney, Boeing, Ford, Motorola, Wal-Mart, ...) and are widely respected by modern CEOs. There are lessons here to be sure, but in the same fashion as in The Tipping Point it is all anecdotal, not causal. Observing that all these companies have common traits is interesting, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that companies that have these traits will be successful. Collins and Porras mitigate this lack of proof quite a bit, however, by examining rival companies (Wells Fargo, Pfizer, Melville, Norton, Burroughs, Columbia Pictures, McDonnell Douglas, General Motors, Zenith, Ames, ...) and finding them lacking.

While interesting, much of the book was repetitive. It would bring up a trait or lesson (i.e., “Not all visionary companies are founded by visionary leaders”) and then explore how several of the companies in the use case illustrate the tenet and how the anti-companies don’t. The corporate histories were interesting, but in many cases I thought the point was made well before the examples stopped. Towards the end the authors start trying to show how these lessons can be applied to today’s corporations, but I thought this material was covered much better in Leading Change. Built To Last also felt very dated, which I found ironic due to the title. Many of the companies used as anti-examples no longer exist (e.g., Melville, Burroughs, Columbia, Ames) as described, and some of the positive examples (Ford, Wal-Mart) aren’t as admired as they once were. One passage that jumped out at me as anachronistic: “Picture an urban freeway without Marlboro cowboy billboards or rural America without Wal-Mart stores.” Wal-Mart hasn’t been “rural” for over a decade and the last time I remember seeing the Marlboro man he was being played by Don Johnson. Considering the book was first released in 1994 I found this quite surprising.

Negatives aside, this book is definitely worth reading. The keys to visionary companies are few: a strong core ideology, good succession planning, and audacious goals. Core values give a company the ability to use something other than profit and opportunity to make decisions. Succession planning allows organizations to thrive after the founder or other talented leadership retire. Big Hairy Audacious Goals (as the authors term them) give employees something that both unites and motivates them. Together, these factors were found in all successful visionary companies the authors studied. It has been a long time (if ever!) since I’ve worked in a place that had a solid vision or bold goals, but these are certainly ideas for which I’ll be on the lookout in future job searches.

First Sentence:
This is not a book about charismatic visionary leaders.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The End of Faith, by Sam Harris

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

Sam Harris is a very emotional man. He calls his tone impatient, but it came across to me as simply angry. I saw Sam Harris discussing this book on The Daily Show and it piqued my interest enough pick it up. It generated a lot of discussion amongst my friends, but the anger hurts what is supposed to be a rational argument: faith itself is the most dangerous element of modern life.

While many of the ideas in the first two chapters are intriguing, the book degenerated into a rant against both Islam and Christianity. In many ways, this is the sort of book that gives such a negative slant to the word atheist. There is a huge difference between someone that simply doesn’t believe in a supreme being and someone that wants everyone else to not believe as well. The first could be your next door neighbor and friend, the second in most perspectives is a negative influence on society (although not much different than missionaries, in my view). This difference between non-belief and preaching non-belief is what in my opinion makes Harris’ form of atheism simply another religion.

I believe that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, and widespread tolerance and understanding are the only ways this planet will survive. Harris disagrees, stating: “I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance ... is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.” Many of the wars and crimes this world has experienced do have a religious back story (the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Thirty Years War, the Holocaust, 9-11, ...), but I don’t think that it follows that religion itself is the only cause. I doubt that the eradication of religion will stop violence on this scale, but tolerance might. Harris claims that “religious beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse,” but I find this patently untrue beyond the extremists. While it seems unlikely that the Pope is going to relent on his anti-homosexual stance, the previously taboo topic of contraception is apparently up for debate. Clearly this illustrates even the most intractable religious organizations can change their views regardless of the supposed infallibility of their sacred texts. How then can you argue that religion can’t be discussed rationally? Tolerance isn’t a bad thing, but zealotry is; unfortunately zealotry seems to rule the day, both in this country and abroad. I think this is the point Harris is trying to make here, but he buries the lead with his own brand of fanaticism.

I don’t believe in a supreme being or miracles. I see no reason to believe in the God of Abraham instead of Zeus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In fact, I find it easier to accept that the occasional time traveler from our future brings sufficiently advanced technology to the past accounting for supposed miracles rather than an omnipotent being which demands our worship. (Note that I doubt time travel is possible either, but it seems more reasonable than religious mythology.) So will I go to hell if I’m wrong? Nobody can say for sure. I try to live my life in a positive fashion, to do no evil as Google would put it. If there is a just God as most people believe, I’d hope he’d view me with a positive eye and let me into Heaven when the time comes. If God turns out to be capricious and caring more for one’s professed devotion than their actual behavior, well, then say a prayer for me. :)

First Sentence:
The young man boards the bus as it leaves the terminal.

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