Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Billion Here, A Billion There

Authors offer tips on avoiding business disasters
Past business mistakes can help others avoid a similar future.

Billion-Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last Twenty-Five Years. Paul B. Carroll, Chunka Mui, Portfolio. 320 pages.

It always cracks me up when I'm reminded that hindsight is not only 20/20 but is often magnified like the Hubble Telescope, especially in business books. Whenever a spectacularly disastrous deal is recounted, the warning signs are never subtle and always appear in big, red, bold, capital letters, usually in flashing neon, accompanied by ear-splitting sirens, wailing horns and thunderous timpani.

It's amazing! How did anyone make such stupid moves? That they were doomed to failure was just so obvious! There was no way they could possibly succeed. The executives who came up with the ideas, proposed, funded, supported, managed and perpetuated them were colossal dunderheads who should have known better. Big duh!

If only that were the case, but it's pretty much the same deal with this new book by Carrol and Mui. The proprietary document fax service Zapmail by FedEx, Motorola's Iridium project, the funeral-home consolidation strategy of the Loewen Group, Ames Department Stores' acquisition of Zayre's, Kodak's stubborn refusal to get into digital photography, Sears' patchwork-quilt assemblage of disparate business -- on and on, all of these hugely ill-conceived and poorly executed ventures and more are recounted, deconstructed and criticized. And all seemed pretty obviously doomed to failure, at least in retrospect.

To be fair, in some cases, business success is like comedy; timing is everything. It's also very similar to real estate; location, location, location. The monumental failures are accompanied with an extra-large helping of hubris, regardless of these factors. Additionally, these projects were almost always funded with OPM (churlishly pronounced "opium"), which stands for Other People's Money, according to Carrol and Mui. So there's that, too.

The authors present their information well enough, though the text rambles a bit as they leap back and forth and back again (and forth again and again) from company to company and meltdown to disaster. Had they stuck with a single firm to illustrate one or two points or organized their material a bit differently, I think it might have made for a better experience or at least a more coherent and comprehensible one.

Fortunately, after the multiple horror stories, there's a meaty and multifaceted analysis of the decision-making process, which is well worth the price of admission.

In fact, given the benefit of hindsight, the authors might want to take another shot at constructing this book. They might begin with this section, then break off into specific studies of each preventive strategy relative to a single firm's drastic mistakes and how companies could have avoided, neutralized or fixed each disaster. It's a pity that the best part of their work is buried in the back, but maybe this judgment is just another benefit of hindsight.

Regardless, Billion Dollar Lessons is a good collection of cautionary tales and a worthwhile repository of wisdom that might help companies avoid the fate of those chronicled within.

Of course, they'll need to read it before the fact!

No comments: