The Revolution Within

SAN FRANCISCO (08/28/2000) - Leading the Revolution by Gary Hamel (Harvard Business School Press)In 1994, IBM Corp. was a basket case. It had lost $15 billion over three years and watched its market capitalization drop by 70 percent, eliminating $73 billion of shareholder wealth. That was when a maverick named David Grossman emerged from an IBM outpost in Ithaca, N.Y., with the radical idea that IBM should become an Internet-savvy information services company.

What followed was a remarkable guerrilla campaign to transform one of the world's largest companies. With the help of a sympathetic senior executive named John Patrick, as well as an underground network of far-flung Net-freaks throughout the IBM empire, Grossman overcame the odds and succeeded, helping to turn around IBM through his iconoclastic efforts.

Gary Hamel wants you to do the same thing. He doesn't care if you work for Cisco Systems in Silicon Valley or a Rust Belt widget maker in Youngstown, Ohio. If your work seems dumb, if your company seems brain-dead, if most of your waking hours aren't filled with the ardent pursuit of radical innovation, Hamel wants you to start fomenting revolutionary change to save your employer from the long, grim twilight of obsolescence. He wants you to think big thoughts, take chances and, most of all, care passionately about how it all turns out.

Hamel's new book, Leading the Revolution, purports to be a kind of Rules for Radicals, a once-fashionable work by the late Saul Alinsky. But instead of empowering society's downtrodden, Hamel wants to convince you that you already have the power to pursue "business concept innovation" of the kind that turns industries - and possibly even societies - upside down.

At this point sensitive readers may feel as if they've wandered into Charles Saxon's famous 1972 New Yorker cartoon about a party. "Steer clear of that one," one woman cautions another about a man across the room. "Every day is always the first day of the rest of his life."

Corporations, after all, do not typically welcome borderline insubordinate campaigns by low-level employees to radically alter the direction of their business. Media critic Ben Bagdikian might have been talking about the difficulty of drastic, bottom-up innovation at most large companies when he said: "Trying to be a first-rate reporter on the average American newspaper is like trying to play Bach's St. Matthew Passion on a ukulele."

Aside from the inherent improbability of his argument, Hamel has a couple of other things going against him. For instance, he's annoyingly impressed with himself, as is evident from the book's self-dramatizing preface. And he's a management guru by profession (his last book was Competing for the Future), which to some readers will make him seem something of a charlatan by definition. Full disclosure: As a species, these guys drive me up a wall. If they really know so much, why haven't they started a few multibillion-dollar companies instead of preying on the insecurity of executives willing to drop a few bucks on the latest management fad? These guys are always full of noisy brio as they lay bare the gross stupidity of corporate America, yet somehow the same corporate idiots who are staples of every consultant's books and videotapes have managed to create the largest, richest, most innovative economy in the history of the world. What an amazing paradox!

All that said, I've got to confess that I liked this book, and you probably will, too. I liked it for the same reason I like churches and synagogues:

Because it's not that often, in this indulgent and therapeutic culture of ours, that we are called upon to be better than ourselves, and with admirable fervor this is precisely what Hamel does. Indeed, the single best thing about Leading the Revolution is its radical argument that work should be engaging, meaningful and passionately performed, and that the way to accomplish this is not by taking pride in some minute increase in efficiency but by coming up with radical innovation - in other words, by being really, really creative.

Fortunately, Hamel goes beyond mere exhortation to offer a blueprint for how to revolutionize your company, even if it means cannibalizing an existing business.

First you need an idea, and some of his suggestions for developing these are obvious: Read new magazines, meet new people, visit new places. Yet it's equally obvious how few people follow them. The point is to find and exploit giant social discontinuities, such as the refusal of baby boomers to grow old (which has created markets for oversize tennis rackets, parabolic skis and other never-say-die products). Hamel emphasizes both direct experience and deep study: Go and see how other people live, but make sure you get beyond first impressions. And distinguish form from function: Banking, for instance, may be essential, but banks aren't.

The goal is "not to speculate on what might happen, but to imagine what you can make happen," and along these lines Hamel offers a section called "How to Build an Insurrection." First you need a point of view, the equivalent of an ideology, but it must be "credible, coherent, compelling and commercial." Then write a manifesto, create a coalition, pick your shots, co-opt and neutralize opposition, find a "translator" to bridge the gap between revolutionaries and establishment, start building small victories, and stay underground long enough to build critical mass - but then be sure to infiltrate (rather than overthrow) the highest levels of the organization to win the resources you'll need to realize your vision. (If you're in senior management, don't feel left out; Hamel suggests ways to make your company revolution-ready.)Leading the Revolution offers a wealth of stories along the way about people and companies who managed to create the kinds of revolution the author is calling for. And although he gives too little credit to the people in white lab coats, he's basically right that a lot of wealth has been created by the Gap, General Electric, Starbucks, Wal-Mart and other companies whose earth-shaking innovations--people will pay US$4 for a cup of coffee!--did not require an engineering degree. In one of his best examples, the brainstorm of a twentysomething Enron employee in England quickly led the company in a whole new direction. "Enron went live in November 1999 with one of the first online markets for all forms of energy," Hamel writes. "Just months after its launch, EnronOnline was doing a dollar volume far greater than Internet stars like Dell Computer, Cisco or Amazon."

Or consider Ken Kutaragi, an obscure Sony researcher who almost single-handedly got his company to come out with a videogame system in 1994. "Less than five years later," Hamel writes, "the PlayStation business had grown to comprise 12 percent of Sony's $57 billion in total revenues, and an incredible 40 percent of its $3 billion in operating profits."

Hamel's examples show that, when the planets are aligned right, it really is possible to bring about revolution inside a company. That doesn't mean it's possible for all of us, or even most of us. But I agree that in the absence of passion and creativity, work is mere drudgery, and Hamel makes a strong case that bringing fresh thinking to the job can produce wealth as well as satisfaction - no surprise to those directly involved in the Internet revolution.

Perhaps, though, the ultimate message of Hamel's book is that in business the phrase "after the revolution" no longer has meaning, ironic or otherwise, since the revolution he's talking about is one without end.

Contributing writer Daniel Akst is a columnist for the New York Times.

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