Emerging Tech

On leadership, success, TouchPad, and The Godfather

How often do we cancel (or let die slowly and painfully) business ventures, initiatives, and projects without giving them every chance to be successful, without actually trying hard enough?

The recent abrupt exit from the tablet market by HP after what amounts to barely dipping the tips of their toes in the pool -- a mere forty-nine days -- has received a lot of attention in the media.

By now we know that these and other decisions cost Leo Apotheker his job as a CEO (admittedly, he did not do too badly financially) and Meg Whitman has been installed in his stead. Yet another ingredient is badly needed at this point to get HP on the road to recovery: a new board.

The whole debacle has made me wonder whether we realize how much of this happens in our own organizations. How often do we cancel (or, worse yet, let wilt slowly and painfully) business ventures, initiatives, and projects without giving them every chance to be successful, without actually trying hard enough?

I am convinced that this is happening today in your organizations, at a great loss to employees, clients, and shareholders alike.

Success does not necessarily look, smell, and taste like success right away. Except for cases of sheer luck, it's almost always born out of hard work, conflict, challenges, trials, and tribulations.

Take one of the best-known success stories in the history of movie-making, The Godfather. This kind of success is impossible to argue with, and one can assume that it was evident from the very start. But nothing could be further from the truth.

For starters, the book on which the movie is based almost did not happen. In 1965, Mario Puzo found himself broke and knee-deep in gambling debts. He concocted a proposal for what he felt would be a commercially attractive book and went shopping for a publisher. He was rejected eight times before finally signing a contract with G.P. Putnam's Sons and receiving a small advance.

It was not until 1969 -- four years later -- that the book was finally published. During this time, Puzo's financial position continued to remain precarious, so much so that he opted to sign an unfavorable agreement with Paramount Studios -- against his agent's advice. As one Paramount executive recalled later: "We had to give him the bread to keep him alive while he was writing the book..."

Paramount was one of the least successful studios in the country at the time, and even though Puzo's novel was selling very well, it wasn't until 1970 that they decided to make it into a "low-budget gangster movie."

Now what? The future (and improbable at this point) success needed a director. Not fewer than twelve directors were approached but refused to take it on. Francis Ford Coppola, at twenty-nine, inexperienced, and desperate to raise money to cover losses of his prior ventures, was a forced choice with not a shadow of a guarantee of success.

The filming was not particularly indicative of the future success either. Coppola and Paramount were at disagreement on any number of things, from the time and location (the studio wanted the cheaper option of The Godfather being a contemporary movie, filmed in Cleveland), to the choice of actors. The iconic music score by Nino Rota was nearly left out. Coppola was almost fired no fewer than five times.

Peter Bart, one of Paramount's executives at the time, summed it all up later: "Making The Godfather was such an extraordinarily unpleasant experience in every aspect that I've avoided thinking about it or talking about it for thirty years."

The Godfather went on to win scores of awards and receive recognition as one of the best movies ever made. It may be hard to reconcile its success with the less-than-smooth making. Would Coppola see the end of filming if he were doing this today?

Most things worth doing in business and in life are achieved through hard work, conflict, and perseverance.

The far-too-common practice and a sign of weak leadership is to apply "cost-cutting measures" to all projects in one's portfolio, hence not upsetting anyone but starving all projects to death equally. For years, I admonished executives to cancel projects that no longer make sense and to reallocate freed-up resources to projects that are critically important, to advance those with force.

Today, I also urge executives to have faith and support with all their clout the work that truly needs doing, especially when the going is rough and success is far from being certain. Such behavior is a sign of true leadership.

And unlike HP's recent TouchPad venture, true leadership takes more than just dipping the toes in the water.

About

Ilya Bogorad is the Principal of Bizvortex Consulting Group Inc, a management consulting company located in Toronto, Canada. Ilya specializes in building better IT organizations.

3 comments
tkejlboom
tkejlboom

I see a general breakdown in management and marketing. Axing Leo good. Axing Touchpad, controversial. Axing WebOS, bad(I mean sure they own some licenses, but they sent most of the developers packing, that will make them relevant for about 3 more months). We'll see how bad Leo was for HP mid-November. For what it's worth, Dell is acting pretty cocky already.

mradamcole
mradamcole

Ilya, I hope your work at LHS bears fruit soon so that you can get back to writing regularly. Your last couple of paragraphs are contradictory: cut projects which don't show promise AND support with all one's clout the work that truly needs to be done. With hindsight, knowing which path to take is simple as you beautifully illustrated with the God Father example. Clearly there is no silver-bullet decision tree to follow in the early days. The deciding factors are myriad and nuanced. I have been called to the carpet for defending contentious projects as surely as I have upset colleagues by challenging projects which I don't perceive as adding positive value. Valiantly cutting or defending a corporate initiative can be highly uncomfortable, even career limiting. I tend to base my decisions on cold logic and hard research but I know I need to be more politically aware with such decisions. What advice do you have for determining fight or flight?

ibogorad
ibogorad

Your praise is very generous. Incidentally, I am running a session on decision making in a couple of weeks, this time customized to healthcare. You may recall this little anecdote (perhaps apocryphal) about the CFO questioning the VP of R&D about the success rate of new products' prototypes. "Cannot you just work only on those few products that will be successful a cancel projects that will flop?!" It goes without saying that it is not immediately clear what will work and what will not. Our judgement gets better as we learn about our craft and we learn to make better selection decisions, but ultimately, in new product development, a lot is left to luck, whim and precise alignement of the stars. There are so many ways in which The Godfather might have failed. The story is really an illustration on how success is not really evident from the start. This is summed up in the penultimate paragraph. What I am talking about in the paragraph that is third from the end is the poor portfolio management, which stems from the lack of strategic focus. When the strategy is not constantly reviewed, challenged and corrected at the C-level, the portfolio of projects also just goes on, whether all of the projects are relevant or not. Then, we find that we need to tighten our belts and so instead of just adjusting the portfolio by canceling what's no longer relevant and investing in what is, budgets are just uniformly cut. This is criminal. Alternatively, power struggles ensue and those who have the ear of the ultimate decision maker, win. All of this because there is no framework for such decisions, so passions take over. It does not have to be this way and there are concrete steps to take to avoid the unfortunate effects you are describing. The first step is for the top level to be on the same page in respect to the main course of the ship. When that is in place, somehow it usually becomes clear what sails to deploy to propel the ship in the intended direction. This is a vast topic, feel free to reach offline.

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