Playing To Win
My Least Favorite Business Book of All Time
Execution by Bossidy & Charan
Though I often get asked about my favorite business books, I don’t get asked about my least favorite. However, avoiding the latter is as important as studying the former and for that reason, I have decided to write my 52nd and final Year II Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) piece on My Least Favorite Business Book of All Time: Execution by Bossidy & Charan. You can find all previous 104 PTW/PI here.
Features of my Least Favorite Business Books
To get on my least favorite list, a business book must: 1) make a big promise; 2) slam another theory; 3) be logically incoherent; 4) force-fit examples retrospectively to fit its thesis; and 5) be dangerous for readers. An implication of the last point is that the book must sell well. Books that no one reads aren’t dangerous.
The 2002 best-seller Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan ticks all five boxes and is my least favorite of all time.
A Big Promise
The book opens with a bang, calling execution “a leader’s most important job” (p. 1). Moreover: “Execution is the great unaddressed issue in the business world today. Its absence is the single biggest obstacle to success and the cause of most of the disappointments that are mistakenly attributed to other causes.” (5) So, the book promises answers on what it argues is the biggest business issue of the day.
Slamming another Theory
The authors immediately slam strategy: “leaders placed too much emphasis on what some call high-level strategy, on intellectualizing and philosophizing, and not enough on implementation.” (6) The premise is quickly established: tough guys (assume they must be guys because not a single woman appears in the book) execute while effete intellectuals strategize. Execution is not only important and meritorious; it saves you from the dangers of strategy.
Surprisingly, even though the title is “Execution” and huge promises are made about its importance, there is no definition of what execution is until page 22, when, finally, we are informed that: “The heart of execution lies in the three core processes: the people process, the strategy process, and the operations process.”
Wait a minute: execution is more important than strategy, but execution includes strategy? This reminded me of a logical trick you can play on the unsuspecting. Ask which is more popular: coffee or hot coffee? Many will quickly respond ‘hot coffee’ because it is easily the most popular form of coffee. But think again: all hot coffee is included in the category of coffee, so all you need is one person on the entire planet who likes iced coffee for coffee to be more popular than hot coffee. So tautologically, execution is more important than strategy if execution includes strategy.
The tautology goes even farther. In the field of management, what activities lay outside the three broad domains of people, strategy, and operations? The answer is hardly anything. Hence, we could safely recharacterize the core argument in the book as: business management is the most important aspect of business management.
In addition to being unable to frame a coherent argument, the book can’t help contradicting itself. For example, the authors come out strongly against micromanagement, calling it “a big mistake” (27). But later, they laud a CEO for the following exemplary execution behavior: “The CEO turned to the engineering vice president and asked him if he would assign the engineers to the task. The vice president hemmed and hawed for half a minute. Then he said, in chilly tones, “Engineers don’t want to work for purchasing.” The CEO looked at the vice president for several moments. Finally he said: “I am sure you will transfer twenty engineers to purchasing on Monday.”” (72). Not 15 engineers or 25 engineers: exactly 20. Not in the next month: precisely Monday. If that isn’t brutal micromanagement, I have never seen micromanagement in my life. Yet isn’t micromanaging “a big mistake?”
The book does not attempt to present data to back up any assertion, relying rather on case studies, which is fine if the case studies are compelling and auditable. Many are disguised and so are un-auditable. Numerous come in the form of self-congratulatory stories from Bossidy’s career across GE, Allied-Signal, and Honeywell. I take those ex-post rationalizations with a large grain of salt.
What is left to buttress the thesis of the book are five identifiable and auditable examples of CEOs exhibiting what the authors characterize as exemplary execution and another four of failed execution.
The lengthiest case example of a CEO demonstrating great execution discipline, spanning eight and a half pages (46–54) of uninterrupted praise, concerns Dick Brown who was appointed CEO of EDS in January 1999. The book was published in June 2002 and unfortunately for the book, Brown was forced to resign a mere nine months later in March 2003 because: “EDS suffered a rocky 2002 that included disappointing earnings, bankruptcy filings by key customers and an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.” Maybe his execution discipline wasn’t so hot? But this wouldn’t be the first case of life evolving in a way that makes a book’s case example look bad, so it is only fair to see whether the other examples make up for this disastrous example.
The second example is the brilliance of Jorma Ollila, Nokia CEO from 1992 to 2006, who according to the book cleverly outexecuted the execution laggards at Motorola (110). That may have looked good in 2002, but Ollila is now known primarily as the CEO who presided over the destruction of Nokia and its exit from the handset business. Is third time a charm? Oops, that example is none other than Bossidy’s fellow ex-GE executive, Bob Nardelli, CEO of Home Depot from 2000 to 2007 who the book praises as “an example of such an energizer” (122). Unfortunately, he became famous for being an imperious and arrogant CEO who presided over a declining stock price and was forced to resign by an unhappy board and livid shareholders.
So, the first three exemplary executors were, in fact, not minor failures but total, blow-out failures. The fourth was a demonstrable success post publication — Michael Dell. But whew, is that one ever bent into a pretzel. Apparently, Dell’s bold and innovative choices to win by: selling direct, enabling customers to configure their own computer online, and building to order rather than to inventory wasn’t strategy. It was execution (16). What can I say? I think that Bossidy and Charan are the only two people on the planet who would characterize Dell’s clever and innovative choices as “execution” — but I guess since they define everything management does as execution, it is execution in their eyes.
Likewise, the fifth, John Trani at GE Medical, showed brilliant execution by doing three things: acquiring a company in an entirely new product segment, entering the medical equipment services business, and doing process improvement (192). Again, everyone but the authors would unquestionably define the first two as strategy choices.
Net, three of the five execution ‘success’ stories were in fact abject failures and the other two were obvious strategy stories appropriated as execution to suit the book’s argument.
What about the execution failure stories?
The first is the flipside of the Dell case. CEO Eckhard Pfeiffer of Compaq is portrayed as being bad at execution for losing to Dell’s brilliant strategy — oops I mean execution (15–16). No other proof of his execution inadequacy is presented other than he was, notionally, outexecuted by Michael Dell.
The second is the thirteen-month tenure of Richard Thoman as CEO of Xerox. Upon becoming CEO, he decided to embark on two huge projects — a massive data center consolidation and a major sales force reorganization. Neither worked out well. Apparently, they were good ideas that were badly executed — though there is nothing to support the notion that either was a good idea or that their problem was “execution.”
The third is Lucent CEO Richard McGinn who was appointed in 1996 and fired in October 2000. Again with 20–20 hindsight, the authors point out his many errors. Somewhat surprisingly given their rhetorical track-record, they do admit that perhaps his downfall had something to do with the catastrophic bursting of the tech bubble: “The collapse of the telecommunications bubble eventually took down almost every player, but Lucent’s decline began even before that. The company fell sooner, harder and farther than its competitors” (42). Nice assertion there, but completely false. Nortel, Lucent’s biggest and most direct competitor by far, fell harder and farther than Lucent by every important measure.
The fourth is late-1990s AT&T CEO Michael Armstrong who is castigated for having badly executed the acquisitions of two huge cable providers (TCI and Cable One), which were subsequently sold for big losses (180). The authors know this was an execution problem because it was “a highly appealing strategy,” which was a clear fact because “The security analysts bought into the idea, and the initial market response was positive.” Yeah right. Everybody knows that when security analysts buy into an idea, it is a brilliant strategy, and the only problem must be execution.
As with the execution ‘success stories,’ the execution ‘failure stories’ just aren’t even close to compelling. If anything, they buttress the case for the central importance of strategy. And remember, these nine stories of execution success or failure represent the only attempts to provide objective support for the book’s argument.
The book was a huge best seller, so lots of people read it or at least put it on their bookshelf. If carefully read, the logical incoherence and absence of supporting data would cause the reader to dismiss the book out of hand, as I do. However, the fact that so many at least bought the book makes me believe that many readers fell for the glib nostrums — “get unfiltered information” (58), “Insist on Realism” (67) — and slick-sounding but empty diagnoses — “The strategy was all right by itself, but the company had no hope of executing it” (143). How on earth would anyone be able to discern that any strategy was indeed “all right” when the company “had no hope of executing it.” How exactly is that an “all right” strategy? The answer: there is no possible way to make that judgment.
Yet thanks to this best-selling book, the world now accepts this logical construction — that there is such a thing as an awesome strategy that produces terrible results. That is dangerous. It lets strategy off the hook and creates delusions about execution being able to save you after you have (for example) made acquisitions that are strategically senseless (e.g. Armstrong) and/or you been trumped strategically (e.g. Pfeiffer).
While I was a business school Dean, I taught a course called Don’t Take it: Shape It! The course attempted to teach students that they didn’t have to accept bad things about the way the business world works, but rather they had the power to shape it for the better.
The study of Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done took up one entire class in the course. The homework for the class was to read the book and summarize in one page or less, its logical argument and the key supporting evidence for the argument. The penny dropped for some, who realized that there was no identifiable coherent logical argument in the book. But many skimmed quickly over the logical surface of the book and reported that the book showed how centrally important execution is. Happily, the former group always helped me provide the latter group with a clearer understanding by the end of the class.
By deeply exploring the (flawed) logic of the book in class, I sought to teach the students a lesson in being able to identify when pablum is masquerading as profundity. That is an important business (and life) skill for each one of us.