Bill Brown bio photo

Bill Brown

A complicated man.

Twitter Github

Along the lines of yesterday’s entry about Sam Walton is a brand new article from the Harvard Business School about successful management practices. The authors studied 160 companies to look for successes—I don’t know how they came up with 160; perhaps 150 was just too low for them and 170 would’ve taken too long.

The article is really an excerpt from a larger articles (presumably one that lists the 160 companies chosen) and follows the Aristotelian premise of finding the good by survey. The authors, of course, have boiled down the secret to these companies success to what they call the 4+2 formula. First, focus on the four fundamentals of business—strategy, execution, culture, and structure—and then pick two from the secondary fundamentals lists—talent, innovation, leadership, and mergers/partnerships. Voilà, you’ve got success!

Nevermind that most companies have a hard time focusing on one or two of them. Forget that most of the fundamentals and secondaries are derived from leadership and innovation. Don’t worry that Sam’s 10 rules say the same stuff in a more direct, useful manner. This is science, baby, and they spent years studying this stuff. That stuff from that Arkansas retailer is just one man’s opinion (just because he built an small-town retail store into the largest company in the world don’t mean a thing).

If this sounds like disdain for academia, you’re pretty close. I believe that, generally, academics enjoy a standing that is undeserved. Sure they’ve toughed out years of grueling graduate school and written hundreds of articles on topics that most people would never rub two brain cells together contemplating, but does that mean that they’re more insightful or enlightened than you or I? Definitely not. Sometimes they’re much less so because they’re sheltered from the real world by university administrators. Sure, they face funding issues and have to apply for grants to get to do interesting things but these pressures aren’t nearly the same as those faced by businessmen or engineers.

I say these things as an academic. I’ve fulfilled about half the course requirements for a master’s in history and plan to go on to my doctorate in the future. I want to be an academic, but not because I want to escape the rat race of the real world. I think we need more experienced people in academia; people who have gone through the trials and tribulations of the outside world, not ones who have lived their entire adult lives within the confines of ivory towers and hallowed halls.

The point of all this is that you can read academic treatises on how to succeed in business till you’re spouting their gobbledy-gook too, but a study of great, successful businesses will be much more fruitful. You’ll learn what those businesses did that got them from small beginnings to towering heights, but most importantly, you’ll get a glimpse into the mindset that took them there. You won’t be able to unthinkingly duplicate Wal-Mart’s success, but by understanding how Sam Walton thought about things and applying that same sort of thinking to your own business problems, you are laying the groundwork of success.

I think Sam Walton would agree with me on these points. I think anybody who’s taken a class where the professor isn’t making any sense and seems to be doing so deliberately would agree with me.