It was interesting to reflect on the take-aways presented in the first chapters of Built to Last that apply to any organization. This weekend I was thinking about the non-profit organizations at which I’ve worked, faith in U.S. government institutions (I was amused the the U.S. government’s founding was brought up as as example), and non-state groups and movements. We are in a school that emphasizes technology, and of course there are implications for the entrepreneur building a more traditional company.
Last year during NYC Media Lab’s conference, there was a speaker addressing how to keep a company relevant in a rapidly changing technological climate. I remember thinking, why should companies endure indefinitely? Maybe a company should do one thing well and when that thing becomes irrelevant, it should die so something else can take its place. Built to Last suggests a shift in thinking that focuses not on a particular product, instead emphasizing the processes and cultures in place that allow whatever its current goals are to be realized, and realized well. In order to assess the uniqueness of companies that have been able to “transcend dependence on the original visionary founders” the authors selected a sample of “premier institutions” that are “widely admired,” that have had an “indelible imprint” on the world, “multiple generations of chief executives,” “multiple product/service lifecycles” and that were “founded before 1950,” as well as a set of comparison companies. Chapter one lays out the methodological rigor of their study while chapter two expands on one key quality of the founders of visionary companies: they were “clock-builders” rather than “time-tellers.” They built an organization that could “tell time,” or do whatever it was they did well, even after they were no longer leaders of their companies.
I’m currently working at a company where we have a lot of discussions about how we see our work affecting the world and how we can use a clear understanding of our mission to be more strategic. Something we’ve stated less explicitly, but that has come out of these discussions and that chapter two allowed me to identify, is the values we all share. They underly everything else. I think they are aligned and consistent across the organization but I’m not sure I thought of them as “core.” Now I wonder how I can create processes that reflect these core values and outlast me. It’s a new frame with which to evaluate leadership at the organization as well.
The authors asserted the United States needs to “gain a better understanding of our enduring core purpose” which pushed me to further evaluate the usefulness of this paradigm. Not to oversimplify the current democratic crisis in the United States, but it does seem as though there’s a fundamental disagreement about the core purpose of this country, and moreover, who has a valid voice in defining this. This frame also seems useful in evaluating social movements: for example, the Black Lives Matter movement now seems to be much less centrally governed than civil rights movements in the past, but has a very clear core purpose and this is part of what makes it so powerful. Last, I think its useful in understanding the persistence of certain groups and ideas that strike terror: for example white supremacy and nazism in the West, and radical Islamic groups in the Middle East and North Africa. Again, while these groups have a leadership structure, vanquishing them requires much more that simply eliminating leaders likely in part because there is that strong and well-defined core purpose.