Thursday, July 10, 2008

Built to Last

I was sorting through old newspapers in the pile to read and found a column from the Merc that struck a nerve. Normally, business columnists are either shallow and superficial, or opinionated with conclusions not supported by the evidence presented (let alone reality). This was definitely neither of those cases.

The May column by Chris O'Brien refers to a speech by utility executive Jim Rogers:

Rogers described how he has embraced something called “cathedral thinking” and he was calling on the Valley to join him. I cringed at first mention of the term, worried that he was going to digress into some awkward religious metaphor.
(I’m not sure why O’Brien automatically assumed a religious metaphor would be awkward. Has he not heard of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, a metaphor embraced by as irreligious a bunch of geeks as you’ll ever find?)

Fortunately, O’Brien listened long enough to get the full story.
Rogers talked about a recent visit he’d made to Europe where he visited a number of the great cathedrals. It struck him that the person who often envisioned these great buildings didn’t live to see them built. Instead, they articulated a powerful vision that galvanized people to work on something that took generations to realize.
Rogers is proving the timelessness of two well-understood principles of effective business (or military) strategy. One is a long-term vision of what needs to be done; the second is creating a strategy (or perhaps just a culture or a set of enabling competencies) that will bring that vision to fruition, even if it’s long after the strategist is gone. This latter point is the theme of the Jim Collins bestseller. Bill and Dave certainly had it, Tom Watson Jr. had it, and I suspect (in their own narrow self-interested way) Gene Kleiner and Tom Perkins had it too.

[Doonesbury]The American political system is seriously broken by the exact opposite thinking Solving a real problem (like homeless people, failed public housing, structural budget deficits, social security) is important for society but too hard for politicians – so they don’t try. Instead, they “kick the can down the road” on these problems and find some symbolic quick victory (like televised hearings) to get re-elected one more time. Duane Delacourt, Doonesbury’s fictional “secretary of symbolism” for President Carter and then Governor Moonbeam, is now no longer exceptional enough to be worth mentioning.

Similarly, today’s CEOs want to string together 10 or 15 quarters of increasing earnings by a penny each time, so they can be handsomely rewarded for sandbagging their objectives before they are sacked. And VCs want to flip a company onto some greater fool before anyone is the wiser.

The occasion of the column and Rogers’ visit was a party commemorating the birthday of a 20-year-old startup, Echelon Corporation. Echelon had an unusually patient management team and board of directors; today its Pyxos embedded control platform appears to be both technologically ripe, and to have found a timely business need —managing industrial, commercial and residential energy usage. The IRR is probably not impressive for the venture investors, but the vision of the CEO and late COO have been validated — and the world is a better place for it.

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