What do you get paid for?” John Waraniak, director of E-Business Speed, Johnson Controls, asks rhetorically. Think about your answer for a minute. I’ll bet it is entirely different than Waraniak’s: “For being different.” Which, I suggest, is a point that cannot be overstressed, especially today. Waraniak, who is certainly among the leading intellectual provocateurs in the auto industry, admits that you have to have the basics in order and in place, that there must be what he calls “operational effectiveness.” This is necessary. Even critical. But it is wholly insufficient. Waraniak stresses that the capability that separates the winners from the losers is the ability to “create and leverage unique, sustainable competitive advantage.” While this is vital to companies as a whole, it is no different for individuals. Given a choice between someone who shows up on time and who fulfills the A-B-C requirements and someone who is a pain in the ass yet creates a new approach or otherwise improves the product, the winning companies will opt for the latter.
Listen to another intellectual provocateur, this one by the name of Christopher Locke: “As practiced in most of the 20th century, market research works against creativity and the kind of risk taking that’s crucially prerequisite to innovative products and services.” That’s from his just published Gonzo Marketing: Winning Through Worst Practices (Perseus Publishing; 243 pp.; $25.00). It’s not that Locke has missed the fact that we’re in the 21st century, but that the accumulated efforts of the better part of the 20th century are still with us. Consequently, there is a continued stifling of what needs to be part of the discourse in all organi-zations, the discourse that throws out new ideas to be implemented, not hackneyed variants of what have already been uttered and then frozen in the amber that is a product. All of us have been schooled during the past several years that we must abide by “best practices.” But Locke notes, “I hope to provide a new kind of model demonstrating to business that it not only can, but must move beyond its unhealthy fear of error and imprecision. Today it is certainty that is not an option. Failure is almost guaranteed.” So fail and move on until you find success. Then screw up some more because your success will be fleeting—at best. Worst practices can work.
I talked with Locke when he was working on a section of his book that begins, “In February 2000 something extraordinary happened. One company—a very large one—ripped out the wall.” The “wall” is a Pink Floyd reference. “Ford announced it was giving home PCs and Internet access to all 350,000 of its employees worldwide.” Locke argued that this was a brilliant idea, one that flew in the face of the long-standing “check-your-brain-at-the-door” tradition of industrial America, one that had the potential of transforming Ford into a true consumer products company. I was somewhat more skeptical. And a few days after I received his book this past October, I sent Locke a news report about Ford’s pulling the plug on the PC program. Locke is, of course, right, in that it was an extraordinary move, a move that was truly imaginative. Unfortunately, the imagination gave out a bit too soon, or was simply trumped by the exigencies of daily business and accounting, accounting that included charges for the Firestone fiasco as well as the aftermath of September 11. Yet the PC giveaway—which one could construe as a worst practice, of sorts (“You’re giving the hourly people what?!?”)—could have been used by Ford as a means of building up confidence in its products: Thousands of Ford employees could communicate to others via the Internet about what the company is really responsible for and doing rather than depending on PR spin to do the job. Clearly, that didn’t work, as Mr. Nasser learned.
Difference. Creativity. Risk-taking. While it might seem better to keep your head down during these tough times, chances are, those who are staying low will be among the first to go.