WSJ: How would you describe your management philosophy?
Ed Zander (CEO, Motorola): Whack yourself before somebody whacks you. I used to have these meetings called the whack meetings at Sun where we’d think about what could happen to us and what we have to do to keep that from happening. That approach led to the creation of Java and a lot of the Internet.
When Peters and Waterman published In Search of Excellence in 1982, they identified many really good companies. Within two years, several of these exemplars, including Atari, Chesebrough-Pond’s, Data General, Fluor and National General, were in decline.
What happened? I think there’s a good chance they weren’t holding whack meetings. They were taking care of business in the conventional way: doing 5 year reviews, meeting quarterly targets, keeping the great ship of state on course and on time. In those days, you could pursue excellence without whack meetings. Due diligence might call for brain storming of one kind or another, but the manager’s philosophy was about squeezing margins, tightening quality control, “trimming sails” and “tuning engines.”
Something changed. Whack meetings moved from being an expensive luxury to the very stuff of due process. Now, as a matter of course, the corporation was required to engage in the self contemplation that was once the preserve of the philosopher and the self absorbed. Notice that Zander didn’t say that “whack meetings” were a good idea, or something that stands high on his “to do” list. He called them his “management philosophy.”
Well, what changed, exactly? Thanks to the work of Clayton Christensen and others, we understand that discontinuity is a new structural characteristic of capitalism. This means that it’s now necessary for corporations to engage in a constant act of self and world scrutiny that asks deeply skeptical questions: what business are we in, what industry are we becoming, what just happened to our consumers, what does nanotechnology mean to us, what will change when 3G is fully installed, is everything we now assume dubious or just a couple of our dearest assumptions, and if that latter, which ones? It’s enough to make the head spin. (I wonder if this is why they call them “whack meetings.”)
There are lots of implications here, but one of my favorites is what whack meetings tell us about the real intellectual demands of business. Whack meetings may be charmingly, disarmingly named, but make no mistake. This term stands for the deep contemplation of what and who the corporation is, and how its world might change as a result of a discontinuous innovation. For a long time, we have had to endure the disdain of intellectuals and academics on this score. Really smart people didn’t go into business. After all, there was nothing to engage them. Well, now there are whack meetings. Come on down.
Christensen, Clayton. 1997. The Innovator’s Dilemma. Boston: Harvard Business School.
Kim, W. Chan and Renee Mauborgne. 2005. Blue Ocean Strategy: How to create uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant. Boston: Harvard Business Press. (acknowledged with thanks for data in paragraph 3)
Peters, Tom and Robert Waterman Jr. 1982. In Search of Excellence. New York: Warner Books.
Rhoads, Christopher. 2005. Motorola’s Modernizer. Wall Street Journal. June 23, 2005, pp. B1, B5. subscription required here.