Survival of the biggest

The following column, which appears in every other issue, presents a counter-conventional look at contemporary advertising and marketing.Corporations, including the faltering titans that are losing markets, closing plants and firing workers, should take heart.Being old and big may not be the...

The following column, which appears in every other issue, presents a counter-conventional look at contemporary advertising and marketing.

Corporations, including the faltering titans that are losing markets, closing plants and firing workers, should take heart.

Being old and big may not be the liability it has been made out to be.

After reading cover stories about dinosaurs in Maclean’s, The New Yorker, U.S. News & World Report, Time and Newsweek, it is obvious that having such creatures as metaphorical models is more inspirational than derogatory.

Significant re-thinking

I must add this represents a significant re-thinking on my part: I’ve always preferred the energy and quick-wittedness of entrepreneurs to the bureaucratic backwardness of big companies.

Paleontologists are discovering that dinosaurs were fierce competitors, not the lumbering, slow, small-brained mammoths that let evolution overtake them. They are now thought to have been warm-blooded. Some were incredibly fast. Some also developed enough social skills to create group nests, and to work together to protect hatching eggs and the vulnerable young.

These creatures roamed and ruled the earth for hundreds of millions of years, showing sustaining power that is unimaginably longer than that achieved by our neophyte species.

Tribute

So big company ceos should take heart. Being associated with dinosaurs may become a tribute rather than a put-down.

Yet, for many big corporations, living up to the improving image of the dinosaur will require lots of work and behavioral change.

Corporations have mistakenly evolved to be cold-blooded. They are overly rational, favoring the precision and clarity of logic to the ambiguity and excitement of imagination.

Some of our smartest companies have suffered setbacks because of their nearly frozen metabolism.

Coke launched new Coke because research told it it was the rational thing to do. The big banks lent to Olympia & York because the spread-sheets quantified the risk to be not only minimal, but desirable.

In these and countless other cases, the cold-blooded precision of numbers did not capture the totality of the human circumstance.

The wisdom of history, the empathy with the human heart, anger, fear and pain were all missing from the no-doubt endless calculations that went into ‘the big decisions.’

Systems and structures, the circulatory coolants common to all big companies, are meant to check risk, but, in practice, they only seem to defeat ingenuity.

As in nature, crisis seems to be the most effective catalyst for getting the blood boiling. The innovation and quality storming out from Chrysler have been stamped with the urgency and creativity that desperation to survive will motivate.

Other companies, after struggling to remake themselves, have even resorted to infusions. It is highly symbolic that Volkswagen, after suffering years of setbacks, put aside its Teutonic reserve and hired a hot-blooded Spaniard to pare back the bloat and re-energize the company’s strategy.

Hot-blooded companies seethe with new ideas, and fight the rigidity of structure. They engage more than just the left brain of their employees, allowing dreams, imagination, ingenuity and need for meaning to be part of the work experience.

General Electric is an example of a dinosaur that evolved hot-blooded behavior.

In their book, Control Your Own Destiny or Someone Else Will, Noel Tichy and Stratford Sherman chronicle the makeover of ge engineered by Jack Welch.

Hearts and minds

They write: ‘The ceo [Welch] often talks about the need to win ‘the hearts and minds’ of workers. Even in a dialogue of ideas, he believes hearts are every bit as important as minds.’

ge is unique because it started its revitalization from a position of success, not crisis. It has fired up its competitive intensity, and so improved communication within the company that some of its plants are run exclusively by workers, without any management supervision. This is empowerment.

Welch and his people make mistakes. And they are humble enough to acknowledge that they, too, the most senior people at ge, must change, learn and adapt.

By example, ge shows that being big is not the problem, being big-headed is. Arrogance insulated by bureaucracy creates the conditions for extinction.

I’m not revoking my support for entrepreneurs, but it is obvious that in our global economy, we also need some big companies.

Resources

Only large enterprises have the resources and investment heft to develop some of the new ideas, products and services that help revitalize the marketplace. Not to be forgotten, they are also an invaluable customer base for innumerable small companies.

Thanks to Steven Spielberg and the marketing of Jurassic Park, our appreciation for dinosaurs is growing.

We are coming to understand that these were awe-inspiring creatures that were fierce predators and canny survivors.

Now, it is up to the modern dinosaurs – the wpp-Canadian Airlines International-Omnicon-nbc-General Motors-Procter & Gamble big company set – to live up to the compliment.

John Dalla Costa is an author and consultant to senior business executives. His first book, Meditations on Business: Why Business As Usual Won’t Work Anymore, came out in 1991 and he is hard at work on a second. Dalla Costa spent 16 years in advertising, and heads a new company called Catalysis, which provides strategic counsel to ceos and senior managers.