The Pile for November 22, 2009

The Pile is our weekly guide to what we’re reading to become better managers. You can find earlier installments here and here and here. Some of the resources we point to may require registration or payment to read.

Bill Taylor picLast week it seemed like everyone else was reading the autobiography of a self-styled maverick, while we were keeping up with the work of someone who's been studying business mavericks and corporate innovation for many years, William C. Taylor. In his Acid test of strategy column for the Washington Post, Taylor, the author of Mavericks at Work and the forthcoming Practically Radical, urges companies to think of strategy as advocacy:

"In any field, winning organizations don't just offer competitive products and services. They stand for important ideas--ideas that help to shape the agenda for their field, ideas that reshape the sense of what's possible for customers, employees, investors, and society. The most successful organizations don't just out-compete their rivals. They redefine the terms of competition by embracing one-of-a-kind ideas in a world filled with me-too thinking.
Oftentimes, the most original and distinctive business ideas--ideas that make tons of money and create loads of wealth--have a huge impact on society as a well. Who cares what Southwest Airlines does for philanthropic purposes (although I'm sure it does some great stuff), given that its growth and success has democratized air travel in the United States, and made it possible for tens of millions of people to see things and do things and visit places they never would have seen, done, or visited without this fabulously successful business?"

Taylor isn't arguing against corporate philanthropy, to be sure. But he is arguing that philanthropy surely isn't the only way companies can change the world.

McKinseyPicOne idea that many people are hoping will change one part of the world is the electric car. But are companies going about marketing the electric car correctly? The McKinsey Quarterly says the best way to sell electric cars is not to satisfy all consumer needs but to segment the market in new ways. In A new segmentation for electric vehicles, Nick Hodson and John Newman argue that electric car makers who go after today's audience for electric cars, "affluent, environmentally conscious, or technically enamored buyers," ignore the much larger number of auto buyers looking for "good value for money." We'll need to see more research to be convinced that the particular missions Hodson and Newman advocate targeting are the right ones, but anyone looking at the market can agree that "Focusing on designing and selling battery-powered vehicles to segments with specific driving missions also allows carmakers to articulate the values clearly to target buyers and to focus distribution strategies."

Economist squirrelFinally, we're getting to the looking-toward-next-year part of this year. The Economist has released its World in 2010 annual and in Now for the long term, Matthew Bishop shows why it's time for businesses to think about the future again. If the challenge over the past year has been about short-term survival, he says, the winners next year will be the ones who can look farther into the future. But Bishop is smart enough to know that simply changing a business's time focus isn't enough:

"There is a danger that long-termism, as it has often been in the past, will be used by bosses as an excuse for avoiding tough but necessary short-term decisions. Equally, bosses will be tempted to avoid costly or difficult long-term decisions on the ground that, as John Maynard Keynes put it, “In the long run we are all dead.” Yet, as executives shape their strategies for 2010 and beyond, one lesson from their recent experience should be clear: unless the business world takes a more sustainable approach, it is unlikely to be long before the next crisis comes around."

Thinking long is no panacea. But not thinking long is a good way to ensure your business won't be surviving long.

The coming weekend is a holiday weekend in the U.S.; we'll be back with a new "Pile" on December 6. Meanwhile, please let us know in the comments what you are reading to be a better manager.