Monday, 15 October 2012

Should Business Schools Be Braver?

About a year ago, a journalist asked me: “The current crisis; you could see it as the failure of corporate governance in general, and boards of directors in specific. What radical new ideas do we see coming out of business schools in terms of how we could organise governance and boards better?”

I answered him what I thought was the truth: “Ehm…. not much really”.

Last week, I was in Prague, for the Annual Meeting of the Strategic Management Society; a bunch of business school professors talking about their research. I attended a session which featured a panel of five senior professors who specialise in governance and boards. I couldn’t resist asking them the same question as the journalist had posed to me: “What radical new ideas do you have in terms of how we could perhaps organise governance and boards better?”

Their answer was basically the same as mine, with equal levels of eloquence: “Ehm… not much really”.

In fact, after a slightly stunned silence, one professor replied to me: “What do you think?” (the reply every professor gives to a student when s/he does not have an answer available), where the second one answered “boards is not really where the action is”. And that was that.

Somehow, I have to admit, I did not expect a real answer – just as I did not have one. And that is because business school professors seldom have an opinion. We are all trained – in our research, through rigorous PhD programmes and years of socialization – to not make assertions but to only make claims that are thoroughly proven, by solid empirics and rigorous theory. And I applaud and adhere to that; I like evidence. However, at some point, you need to take that evidence and develop an opinion. And that’s where it usually stalls, in business schools.

Because people are not used to say anything without evidence, they end up saying nothing at all. That’s because when it comes to questions such as “how could we organise this better?” the evidence is always going to be imperfect.

It reminded me of what a paediatric neurologist once told me: “What I do is part art; part science. I know all the scientific evidence and treatments and medication, but at the end of the day, every child and case is unique, and you have to make a choice and an develop an opinion”.

In business schools, we’re more likely to let the child die. Since we have no perfect evidence on what the exact treatment should be, we end up doing nothing.

Hence, that the five professors did not express an opinion did not really surprise me. But what I later realised, and what did surprise me – although I blame myself for my naivety – is that not only are you not expected to have an opinion; you’re not even supposed to want to have one.

Even raising the question and asking for an opinion is considered suspect, illegitimate and un-academic. As business school academics, we describe and seek to understand reality, but are not supposed to want to alter and improve it. Which is a shame, because sometimes I feel the world of business – and the world in general – could do with a bit of improvement.

“I know what I want, I have a goal, an opinion. If God lets me live, I shall not remain insignificant, I shall work in the world and for mankind! And now I know that first and foremost I shall require courage and cheerfulness!” Anne Frank, April 11, 1944

Friday, 5 October 2012

Steve Jobs – Perhaps Apple Could Have Done Without Him

Steve Jobs – the man was fallible” is what I wrote in October 2011. I guess it seems pretty innocent now – although there may some remnants of people who still feel offended by it – but, believe it or not, one year ago it actually triggered a small barrage of hate mail.

Since then, I have read or heard others describe him as a terrorist, an asshole, and a psychopath (which, given that many US presidents have been shown to have had psychopathic tendencies may not even be unlikely). Hey, all I said was that he was “fallible”!

But all these people, in the wake of calling him a terrorist, an asshole, or a psychopath, without exception, also described him as a genius. And a person who built the greatest company on earth, changing all of our daily lives in the process.

But, in fact, I am not so sure of that either…

I don’t mean this as some lame attempt at a final insult – suggesting that he wasn’t even responsible for building this great company – but as a genuine question: Would Apple have been equally great today if it hadn’t been for Steve Jobs? And, honestly, I think that is not impossible. And that is because I am a Tolstoy fan.

Tolstoy, in War and Peace, using Napoleon as an example, had a very clear opinion of leadership. A leader “is just a banner, they hold aloft in the wind”. “Napoleon thinks he commands a 100,000 men, but in reality, he follows them”. Tolstoy thought that what drove the French into Russia was not the act of a single man – Napoleon – but the result of much greater, collective human forces. Those forces needed a spearhead, and that became Napoleon. But if it hadn’t been him, someone else would have emerged to follow those forces as their leader. Because “The course of earthly happenings … depends on the combined volition of all who participate in those events, and … the influence of a Napoleon on the course of those events is purely superficial and imaginary”.

Would Apple have become great without Steve Jobs, or would someone else have surfaced to spearhead and personify the combined volition of the people working in that area in that company at that point time? I think the answer might be yes.

But who knows? And I know I will never know. But I also know that pretty much every person who reads this piece thinks he or she knows that the answer is “no”. “No, Apple would never have been this great without Steve Jobs”. And nothing will ever change that. Because what Steve Jobs has going on Napoleon, is that he is dead. Or better, that he died before Apple’s demise. Napoleon lived to see his armies defeated by the Russians, and by the forces commanded by the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo. People started to realize he wasn’t such a superhuman genius as they once thought he was.

When Apple’s performance will start to plunge (and I mean “when” and not “if”) the Great Man Steve will not be there to blame.

And of course Apple will, one day, start to underperform. One day, it will be outcompeted by its rivals, and even lose their shareholders’ money in the process (if alone for the simple reason that if it continues its current growth rate for another decade it will be more valuable than the rest of planet Earth combined, eyeing up dominance of the solar system next). It will fall. But then people will simply say that it wouldn’t have happened had Steve Jobs still been around. Because he’s their banner; their banner they hold aloft in the wind.