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Destructive Brilliance

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[Photo of Computer shop]Have you ever found yourself sitting in a crisis meeting, wondering what the crisis was? If not, let me tell you that this kind of thing happens; and, one day, it will happen to you. Sometimes this happens because we were too busy thinking about what to have for lunch to realize things have gone to the dogs.

More often, however, this happens because of a change in leadership. Success for one leader can be and, in my experience, often is a crisis in need of a hasty turnaround for another. While those of us who were there through the transition know nothing has fundamentally changed, alas, here we are, sitting in a crisis meeting, wondering what the crisis was.

The quintessential question is “Why?”

Burn Baby Burn

An urban legend tells of a Samsung chief executive who felt so frustrated by the progress of business that he went to the warehouse and burned the inventory. He didn’t do this because the goods were insured and he needed every penny he could get. On the contrary, he burned the inventory as a statement to the troops: out with the old, in with the new.

Samsung began as a trading company, selling fish, vegetables, and fruit to China in 1938. It is now the world’s largest conglomerate by revenue. Samsung Group’s subsidiary Samsung Electronics is the largest electronics company in the world.

Do you think everyone who witnessed the burning of the inventory agreed with what their chief executive was doing? Probably not. A lot of them would have felt quite confused by what they saw, not knowing what to do, and not knowing whether it was legal or not for the company’s majority owner to burn company property.

The Samsung executive gave a rousing speech, I’m sure. But do you think everyone understood just how bad the situation was and why it called for such drastic intervention? Maybe not. They could have been growing at 15% year-on-year at the time. Whether that’s good or bad will depend on whom you’re asking. Pick 10 people and you may get 10 different answers.

In moments of spastic brilliance, leaders can sometimes see beyond the numbers to a farther off reality—a place no one else may yet see—and pursue it.
Was this particular chief executive a visionary or a loony? Judging by the pace at which Samsung has grown over the past 70 years, I’d be inclined to say the former.

Case for Hair-ripping Change

What's the difference between Manila's streets and Makati's? Well, for one, Makati’s are much more functional. They can accommodate more traffic. They are less roundabout, so you tend to find your way around faster. And they sit atop better sewage systems so you don’t have to swim in water if it rains too hard.

On top of its functional benefits, the streets of Makati are even more aesthetic. Whichever way you look at them, they’re beautiful. The shapes they make are nice and symmetrical you can admire them over a hot grande latte.

Cities are works in progress; that is, they’re never really completed. Makati has been in the making for over 60 years. Manila, on the other hand, has been in the making for over 300 years. You can improve an old city but you can’t expect it to look as good or work as perfectly as a brand new one. There will be just too much of the old system and its rules to follow that you end up with a series of minor revisions instead of a true (and periodically needed) transformation.

Sledgehammer Anyone?

Okay, so new cities are nice cities. What does this mean for those of us who don’t do city planning?

Well, for Samsung, it meant burning old inventory so employees could focus on an entirely new line of business. For the rest of us, it may mean accepting new leaders and their new—if odd—visions of the future. While renouncing our tried-and-tested ways may be painful at first, true innovation and transformation will require hair-ripping change. Whether we do it today or the next day, in times we consider good or in times of true crisis, to stay ahead, change is needed.

So the next time you’re called to a crisis meeting, whether you get that there’s a crisis or not, understand that one will eventually come. And, when it does, the old ways will not only be incapable of solving the problem, they will be a hindrance to future success.
A final word of advice: You may also consider bringing a sledgehammer or two to the office just in case your boss is feeling more than metaphorical during your next crisis meeting.

Print ed: 11/09


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