Whack meetings at Motorola (the new secret of success)


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.

7 thoughts on “Whack meetings at Motorola (the new secret of success)

  1. gary

    My experience has been that turning a battleship with whacks is an exercise in oversteering.

    By the time philosophical vectors get to the distant rudder, the captain’s whackjobs are already blowing in a different wind. Bigness is the problem here.

    In the case of Eastman Kodak, their products are obsolete by the time they reach the end of the R&D process and land on the shipping docks.

    EK Corporate obviously was aware of the lethal consequences of the digital whale to silver-based photography and has let it escape unharpooned. The ship is too big to course-correct. Is EK alone? Moby, Moby not.

  2. Grant

    Gary, Bigness is a big problem and even very good ideas will not help you if the corporation is not very well mobilized. But the WSJ article and interview with Zander made it sound like he was insisting on Whack meetings and on more mobilized corporation. I think we are to understand that the “razr” is first fruits of the two working in concert. I think EK was merely making sure it didn’t bolt before it had captured the last and the enduring moments of the silver based opportunity. And it looks as if Lafley at P&G has created a big corporation that’s also mobile. I for one am reluctant to suppose that bigness by itself as a problem. Thanks, Grant

  3. Ed Batista

    But “bigness” and “slowness” aren’t the only challenges, Gary. I work for a small consulting firm that designs websites and conducts online marketing campaigns for nonprofits. The rise of blogging (a personal passion and a professional fascination) and the choking of the email inbox (with legitimate messages as well as spam) have the potential to dramatically remake our business in a few years. Grant’s essay reminds me of the need to see our competitive landscape as unsettled and constantly evolving, but being such a small company, we have to time our moves carefully. We could turn our dinghy on a dime, but if we move too quickly, we’ll be too far ahead of our market, i.e. sunk.

  4. Grant

    Ed, that’s a great point, the trial, the real challenge, of smallness is being too early. Big, slow corporations do at least have this in common with the mass of the marketplace. So if a little nimble company is speaking to other early adopters, fine. But if they are talking to the mass of the market, it must feel like they are suddenly oblige to s..l..o..w t..h..i..n..g..s d..o..w..n, to be cast, as it were, against type. Thanks! Grant

  5. Tom Guarriello

    Several good ideas in this post and comments, Grant. Certainly the “whack” approach would help many big names, e.g., Wal*Mart. I particularly like the point about “small” being conducive to the problem of getting too far out ahead of the mainstream. I’ve been in that small boat many times and know the feeling of waiting for the rest of the fleet to arrive. Sometimes they’ve gotten there, but often we’ve run out of provisions before they did.

  6. Grant

    Tom, yes, on small, there is apparently a fine line between it’s recognized advantage (nimble) and the less recognized danger (premature). You could say that this is precisely what happened with the http://www.cultureby.com website, in which I waited for people to snap up “plenitude” only to discover that the printed page is still required by most (yes, even me.) Best, Grant

    CarolGee, Thanks for this like, it made for completely absorbing reading, and I was left thinking that all the whacks that rework the corporation are matched by whacks that promise the same thing for the individual. Very Parsonian somehow, except that articulation is only sometimes forthcoming. Thanks! Grant

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