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Fast/Forward: Make Your Company Fit for the Future

Fast/Forward: Make Your Company Fit for the Future

by Julian Birkinshaw, Jonas Ridderstråle
Fast/Forward: Make Your Company Fit for the Future

Fast/Forward: Make Your Company Fit for the Future

by Julian Birkinshaw, Jonas Ridderstråle

Hardcover(New Edition)

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The leading companies of the past twenty years have all harnessed the power of information to gain competitive advantage. But as access to big data becomes ubiquitous, it can no longer guarantee a leg up. Fast/Forward makes the case that we are entering a new era in which firms that understand the limits of 1s and 0s will take the lead.

Whereas the industrial age saw the rise of bureaucracy, and the information age has been described as a meritocracy, we are witnessing the rise of adhocracy. In uncertain, rapidly-changing times, adhocracic organizations scan the horizon for winning opportunities. Then, instead of questing after more analysis, they respond with agility by making smart, intuitive decisions. Combining decisive action with emotional conviction, future-facing firms seize the day.

Fast/Forward paints the big picture of a new approach to strategy and provides the necessary playbook to make your company fit for the future.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804799539
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 04/04/2017
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 5.80(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Julian Birkinshaw is Professor and Chair of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School. An acclaimed expert on innovation, entrepreneurship, and renewal in large corporations, he is the author of twelve books. His research and commentary have been featured in The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, and Bloomberg Businessweek. Jonas Ridderstråle is a renowned business thinker and speaker. Jonas' diverse client list includes Fortune 500 companies, major government bodies, sports teams, and trade unions. A Visiting Professor at Ashridge Business School, he is the author of four books: Funky Business (2000), Karaoke Capitalism (2004), Funky Business Forever (2007), and Re-energizing the Corporation (2008).

Read an Excerpt


Make Your Company Fit for the Future

By Julian Birkinshaw, Jonas Ridderstrale


Copyright © 2017 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5036-0231-1



WHAT IS THE BASIS of competitive advantage in today's business landscape? Many observers say it is the power to harness information. Best-selling authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have argued we are entering the "Second Machine Age," with information technology as the engine of human progress. The McKinsey Global Institute has called big data the "next frontier for innovation, competition and productivity." Academic research points to the importance of knowledge sharing, intellectual property, and R&D as the drivers of competitiveness. Firms such as IBM, American Express, and Caesar's Entertainment have emphasized business analytics and big data as key to their success.

In this book, we offer a different perspective. We believe the case for information technology, big data, and advanced analytics is overstated. These will of course continue to be important resources for staying in the race, but as information becomes ever more ubiquitous and search costs trend to zero, their capacity to provide any modern organization with a leading edge is diminishing.

That's not the only problem. Information overload at the individual level leads to distractedness, confusion, and poor decision making. At a corporate level, we end up with analysis paralysis, endless debate, and a bias toward rational, scientific evidence at the expense of intuition or gut feel. These pathologies have a deleterious effect on our companies. They lessen the quality and speed of decision making, delay action, and engender a sterile operating environment in which insightful thinking is quashed unless it is quantifiable. As a result, many companies end up standing still, even as the world around them is speeding up.

So what is the alternative to "Slow-Motion Inc."? Smart executives understand both the potential and the pitfalls of information. They recognize that the notion of competitive advantage is more fleeting than it used to be. They adopt what we call a fast/forward approach to business: they emphasize decisive action ahead of detailed analysis, and they are comfortable relying on emotional conviction alongside rational judgments.

Consider a few examples.

Amazon's phenomenal growth, from online bookseller to new economy powerhouse, defies all the established rules about firms focusing on their core competencies. Its success is built on deep insight into the needs of its customers, and an assumption that if you create value for customers, growth and profits will follow. Jeff Bezos, the company's cerebral founder, started his career developing mathematical models for a hedge fund and is a great believer in systematic analysis. But at the same time, he is known for his "harrowing leaps of faith." His most important decisions are not based on studies or spreadsheets, they are "nervy gambles on ideas that are just too big to try out reliably in small-scale tests."

Or look at WPP, which has transformed itself over the last decade from a stable of old-school ad agencies, such as JWT and Ogilvy & Mather, to the world's biggest new media communications company, with 40 percent of its revenues coming from its digital businesses, such as Internet and mobile advertising. For an industry built on fresh thinking, creative talent, and client responsiveness, bigger is not always better. So CEO Martin Sorrell allows the operating businesses to retain autonomy and to compete head-on with one another, while also encouraging collaboration when required — what one observer has called the "kiss and punch" model. Sorrell is famous for his attention to detail, his micro-managing style of leadership, yet like Jeff Bezos he is also decisive, with many of his largest acquisitions based more on gut instinct than due diligence. WPP's "weirdly effective mix of order and chaos" has enabled it to steer through the digital revolution more capably than its big rivals, and yet Sorrell feels there is more to do: "We don't believe that our existing businesses can move fast enough."

Or consider Oracle, the world's leading provider of database management software. Back in 2005, CEO Larry Ellison initiated a major project to rework the company's products as software-as-service applications. Back then, the term cloud computing hadn't even been invented, and there were many competing views about the future of computing. But Ellison made it a top priority, putting his very best developers onto a project with an uncertain future and a ten-year time horizon. In doing so, he enabled Oracle to develop one of the most comprehensive "cloud" offerings, spanning software, platform, and infrastructure elements. As observed by Thomas Kurian, Oracle president, "the heart of innovation is to decide early — in the middle of the period of ambiguity."

You might think this is a tech-sector phenomenon, but increasingly executives in large, mature industries are also embracing the fast/forward mind-set. For example, Swiss drug giant Roche is seeking to give greater decision-making freedom to its R&D scientists. As CEO Severin Schwan says, "We need a culture where people take risks because if you don't take risks, you won't have breakthrough innovation." Air Liquide, the Paris-based world leader in industrial gases, has undertaken a major shift in strategy toward innovation and retention, driven by what CEO Benoit Poitier calls the "expertise, audacity and intuition" of its sixty-eight thousand employees. Air Liquide, like Roche, is achieving impressive levels of growth in an otherwise stagnant industry.

Or look at Lloyds Banking Group in the United Kingdom. It has put digital working at the heart of its new strategy, following its post-financial-crisis turnaround. In the words of CEO António Horta-Osório, the intention is to "get closer to customers and make the decision cycle happen more quickly." A thousand-person digital team now reports in directly at board level, with a mandate to make the whole bank more agile. "This is a strategy adapting to the new world," says Horta-Osório, "We want to create a high-performing organization ... to be quicker than others to have a competitive advantage."

These brief company examples illustrate some important themes. Success in a fast-changing business world is a subtle blend of art and science. Rather than getting bogged down in analysis and introspection, fast/forward companies are open-minded, and they have operating cultures that promote action and experimentation. Their leaders know when to listen to the data and when to be decisive. As Jeff Bezos says, "There are decisions that can be made by analysis. ... These are the best kinds of decisions! They're fact-based decisions. Unfortunately, there's this whole other set of decisions that you can't ultimately boil down to a math problem," namely the big bets on new businesses like the Kindle or Amazon Web Services.

Riding the Waves of Change

Arguably, decisive action and emotional conviction have always been important traits, but there are trends under way in today's business world making them more important than ever. To appreciate that, let's take a historical perspective.

Most casual observers would readily agree that we live in the information age, the period in human history characterized by the shift from traditional industry to an economy based on information computerization. It started with the roll-out of computer technology, and then evolved with subsequent waves of innovation in Internet connectivity and mobile communication.

At an individual level, we know exactly what living in the information age means, from the new ways in which we communicate with others to the transformation of our shopping and entertainment experiences. For better or worse, our teenage children have never bought a newspaper or a CD. Many young people have never visited a library, and really young kids can mistake a magazine for a broken iPad, as they swipe their finger across the cover page to no avail. There is even evidence that the Internet is literally rewiring our brains — increasing our capacity for "visual-spatial" intelligence and for multitasking, while decreasing our skills in concentration and contemplation.

But what does operating in the information age mean for firms? Or more precisely, what are the characteristics of information-age firms that make them different from industrial-age firms?

First and foremost are the changes in the underlying source of profitability — the business model. In the industrial age, firms typically made money through economies of scale and scope. General Motors, Standard Oil, and Imperial Chemicals Industries got ahead by producing standardized products more efficiently than anyone else. In the information age, firms succeed because they create a constant flow of new products and services that their customers are prepared to pay a premium for. Such offerings typically stem from the smart use of information — economies of skill, rather than scale or scope. From Apple to Novo Nordisk and SAP to Nintendo, the leading firms of the last thirty years have achieved their success by harnessing information, creating knowledge, and attracting talent.

Second is the new internal way of working — the management model. The classical way of operating that took shape during the industrial age was the bureaucracy. This was a model built on standardized rules and procedures and hierarchical oversight — complicated structures inhabited by simple people. By structuring themselves in this way, firms such as General Motors were able to retain control over a complex set of operations and close to three hundred and fifty thousand employees. As the information age took hold through the 1970s and 1980s, tight control over employees became less feasible (as they had direct access to information) and less necessary (as they had the skills to make their own judgments). Gradually, an alternative management model — the meritocracy — emerged. This one was built on personal accountability and mutual adjustment — a simpler structure for more complicated people. Science-based firms, such as Merck and Intel, and professional services firms, such as McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, exemplify this approach.

Management thinking has also reflected this broad transition from the industrial to the information age. The 1920s saw the invention of scientific management, capital budgeting, and the multidivisional structure. In the postwar years we witnessed the rise of operations research, yield management, management by objectives, and matrix organizations. These managerial innovations were basically methodologies for enhancing efficiency and control. Move forward to the 1980s and beyond, and most of the new ideas were about harnessing information more effectively — intellectual capital, knowledge management, open innovation, design thinking, intellectual property rights, empowerment, and corporate venturing.

The transition from the industrial age to the information age sets up an interesting question: What comes next? If the information age is just another period in human history, then we should not simply assume it lasts forever. The legendary Austrian economist Josef Schumpeter formulated one of the most pervasive principles of economic progress. He called it the cycle of creative destruction — there is always something new coming along that will succeed at the expense of the old. And this logic applies to historical eras as much as to industries or technologies. In fact, it applies to anything from high jumping to coffee bars. So how will historians in a hundred years interpret the period we are living through right now? Are we in the early stages of the information age, or in its twilight years? And what would a potential next age look like?

One influential view says, in essence, that we ain't seen nothing yet. The changes brought about by the information revolution are still in their infancy. They will continue for many years, and indeed they will accelerate. Ray Kurzweil, the renowned futurist, inventor, and part-time director of engineering at Google, is the high priest of this movement. Born in 1948, Kurzweil has been a leading figure in artificial intelligence for forty-plus years. In his book The Age of Spiritual Machines he put forward the law of accelerating returns — the notion that technological changes are compounding over time, so that computer intelligence will actually overtake human intelligence within our lifetimes. A subsequent book, The Singularity Is Near, took this argument further and provided a specific date, 2045, for the singularity — the point at which progress is so rapid it outstrips humans' ability to comprehend it. Several recent best-selling books, including Brynjolfsson and McAfee's Second Machine Age and Martin Ford's Rise of Robots, have expanded on this argument with bold predictions about how the world of business is being transformed.

For technophiles like Kurzweil, the basis of firm-level competitive advantage for the years ahead is simple: more data, more information, more knowledge. In other words, the competitive edge will come from finding new and better ways of harnessing information. And there are plenty of real cases illustrating this. For example, IBM has pledged its future on a "smarter planet" theme, and on investing hundreds of millions of dollars in its artificial intelligence division, Watson. Indeed, many of the corporate growth stories of the last decade involve companies (Google, Amazon, Facebook) that have been built on superior analytical techniques — figuring out the best algorithm for searching the Web, clever ways of predicting purchasing behavior, and so on.

But where these folks see a world of accelerating change, we see the seed of creative destruction taking hold. To be clear, technological innovation is a big part of our future, and harnessing information will continue to be an important part of every firm's strategy. But we believe the costs and side effects of the information revolution have not been sufficiently understood. Following are a few quick observations:

Information is ubiquitous. We can access an obscure piece of information in a matter of seconds while sitting on a train to Paddington station or a beach in Thailand, or during a walking holiday in the Alps.

Search costs have plummeted. A day's worth of research in the library or microfiche department in the 1980s might take half an hour today. It takes us longer to find an academic paper in our filing cabinet than to retrieve it online.

Nothing is secret anymore. Even copyright-protected documents are often freely available. Open-access journals are on the rise. Even state secrets find their way into the public domain, thanks to the likes of whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange.

The veracity of online information is increasingly uncertain. For example, one study estimated that only 44 percent of website recommendations relating to infant sleeping were consistent with official guidelines. The old saying "Don't believe everything you read" has taken on a new meaning in the era of information overload. In fact, there are many cases in which even the experts don't agree on the implications of the facts. Just consider the dispute over global warming or which diet to follow.

Put these points together, and it is clear that information is no longer a "scarce resource" in any sense of the term. Nowadays, information technology is electronic plumbing — available to everyone. Of course, it is still possible for firms to create proprietary insights out of public information, but also this is becoming harder and harder. The idea that firms might generate sustainable competitive advantages through their privileged access to information is surely obsolete. Today, no one has a monopoly on information access — no country, no parent, no business, no teacher, no guru.


So then what is the scarce resource in this world? What is the difficult thing to access and control that firms will base their future competitive advantage on? Actually, the answer to this question isn't that tricky to find. In fact, Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon wrote about it forty years ago: it is our attention, our capacity to focus on and respond in an effective way to the stimuli we receive, that we need to worry about:

[I]n an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.

This insight is even more relevant today than it was back in 1971. The more we obsess over the power of information, the more we believe that the answer is in the data, the more blinkered we become. We lose the capacity to move fast, or the capacity to bring an intuitive point of view forward. We become victims of paralysis by analysis.


Excerpted from Fast/Forward by Julian Birkinshaw, Jonas Ridderstrale. Copyright © 2017 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xiii

1 Staying Ahead of the Curve 1

2 The Paradoxes of Progress 21

3 Models of Management 48

4 The Action Imperative in Strategy 71

5 Linking Strategy Back to Purpose 93

6 Opportunity-Focused Coordination 116

7 The Overachieving Organization 141

8 Ambidextrous Leadership for an Agile World 163

9 Becoming an Unreasonable Manager 186

Notes 205

Index 219

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