BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

A blast from the past ...

I know that somebody highly recommended this book to me, but I have no clue who that might have been. I suspect it may have been somebody at one of the Transamerica meetings (where I've had other “business philosophy” titles enthusiastically suggested that I should read). In any case, I took the advice and picked up a copy of Robert J. Kriegel's If it Ain't Broke...Break It!: And Other Unconventional Wisdom for a Changing Business World from the Amazon new/used guys (hey, hard to argue with copies for 1¢).

I hate to say it, but the most notable thing about this is that it's quite old (from 1991 – heck, I was still a PR exec back then), and yet, except for the particulars (O.J. Simpson as a sport celebrity, Arthur Anderson as an innovating company, etc.) this doesn't feel overly dated … which no doubt speaks to the tone/approach of the book. As opposed to many marketing (or certainly technology/internet) books, this isn't full of “groaners”, but it does have a bit of a sense of coming from a different world … one, for example, without the web (Mosaic, the earliest WWW browser, wasn't released until 1993!), and where moving functions onto a computer is a highlighted achievement.

In the Introduction, Kriegel says:
      The one thing we can count on as we approach the twenty-first century is the certainty that rip-roaring change will challenge our understanding and shake up the basic foundations of the world around us, in every area. Whatever we do, and wherever we do it, everything – workstyles, economic conditions, technology, corporate structures, global communications, lifestyles, environmental responsibilities – everything is changing at a dizzying rate.
… which was certainly borne out by the past quarter century, albeit in ways that he probably had no inkling of at the date this was written.

However, the sense of on-coming change sets up the context for the (on the surface) somewhat counter-intuitive title, in the realization that trying to “keep things as they are” is almost certainly going to result in being passed by … so looking for ways to “break” things (as they've always been done) looks to be a promising strategy.

There are a couple of odd usages in here, one of which I'd like to address … “firehosing” … when I use the term “firehose”, it's typically in the sense of a massive amount of information coming fast and hard, like water out of a firehose … here the author uses it in different sense: “In an attempt to cling to the familiar and stay on safe ground {the would-be innovator}'s boss responded like a fireman hosing down a fire. He effectively “firehosed” her, dousing her ideas, enthusiasm, and spirit.” This usage comes up all through the book, and is related to the idea of having passion, or “a fire in the heart”. He goes on to frame this as:
      Firehosing is a common way we undermine or dismiss the daring strategy, the new idea, and even the simplest suggestion for improvement. What's worse, though, is how often we firehose our own dreams and creative ideas without knowing it.
The basic feel of the book (and probably why it's aged as well as it has) is very “coachy”, which makes sense as the author is a former athlete and coach for Olympic competitors, and is more about one's motivations than the specifics of the implementations. This is not, however, much of a workbook (which I take it the author does have for the various courses and corporate events he mentions doing), although there are the occasional fill-in-the-blank sections, and lists of questions and attributes.

Speaking of lists, this covers a lot of thematic ground over its 21 chapters, making a discussion of the whole somewhat challenging, so I think this is one of those instances where indulging in a list of chapter headings might well impart a sense of the “arc” better than my trying for some sort of summation:
1.   Surf's Up! … Embrace the Unexpected
2.   Put Fire in Your Heart
3.   Stoke It … Don't Soak It
4.   Dreams Are Goals with Wings
5.   Try Easy
6.   Always Mess with Success
7.   Playing It Safe … Is Dangerous!
8.   Don't Compete … Change the Game
9.   Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers
10. Think Like a Beginner
11. Strange Bedfellows Make Great Partners
12. Take Risks … Not Chances
13. Fear Tells Lies … Break the Cycle
14. Mistakes Are a Good Investment
15. Failure Is a Good Place to Start
16. Plan on Changing Your Plans
17. Play Your Own Best Game
18. Don't Look Where You Don't Want to Go
19. Like It? Log It!
20. Joy Pays Off
21. Breaking Out
Needless to say, you can pretty much tell “where he's going” with the various chapters. Again, this works best when it's in the “general” rather than in the particular (aside from now-gone corporations he lauds here, there are quite a few “highly innovative” products, companies, and systems which I've never heard of, so the odds are pretty good they were something shiny that caught his eye at the time, but never actually made it). Of course, far older books have had on-going popularity (Napoleon Hill's “Think And Grow Rich” comes to mind), largely on being about process rather than specific situations, so it's in good company there.

One of the workshop exercises he outlines is that for determining one's own “sacred cows”, and he reports that (from over 10,000 participants), more than 90% reported spending more time doing things they disliked than those they liked, with the latter being predictably more productive activities:
      In almost every instance, doing the things you like – the challenging tasks, the creative work, the people work – is much more directly related to the bottom line of the organization than the paperwork.
... which he expands on, noting that this (paperwork) typically: “has more to do with mistrust, control, and monitoring than with motivating, innovating, and producing”.

One of the most useful/applicable bits here is the part about “The Fear Cycle”, which has five “links”:
Link I: Imagined Consequences
Link II: Fear Distorts Perception
Link III: The Physical Response
Link IV: Freeze or Frenzy
Link V: Worse Expectations Fulfilled
The most typical example of this would be in public speaking or doing an important presentation, although the same cycle can be traced out in almost any stress-inducing situation. Kriegel suggests that the cycle can be broken at any of these links, and charts out methods to address the fear at each (such as making a “worry list” and thinking through actions to take if any of the worse-case scenarios do manifest).

There were some interesting quotables in the “Mistakes” chapter, including quoting from an early Apple exec that “success does not breed success. It is failure which breeds success.”, which the author expands on with:
Mistakes help you to rethink, reconceptualize, and restrategize. The result of “going back to the drawing board” is usually substantially better than the original idea.
Another figure he throws out is good to recall … “the average millionaire entrepreneur has gone bankrupt 3.75 times.” (which brings to mind the mindless criticism of Trump's assorted failed ventures, as if only an – impossible – 100% success record is legitimizing!). There's also a number of stories here that talk of world-class winners who hardly started that way … including a trio of multiple Super Bowl champion head coaches who also manged to have worst-ever first-season records in NFL history.

As anybody who knows me in real life will attest, I have always had a lot of distrust of “plans” (even before I read about the Gurdjieff/Ouspensky “shock points”), and so I had a certain affinity for his “changing plans” section here. Kriegel notes (and I suspect he might be underestimating the effect):
      As unpredictable and uncontrollable as things are today, there are three things you can in fact count on. I call these the “triple double.” You can assume that anything new will invariably take twice as long, cost twice as much and involve twice as much work as you thought!

      Because of the triple double, one of the most difficult phases of any new project or venture is in the middle. This is where the unexpected has wreaked havoc on carefully developed plans. …

      Nowadays, uncertainty and surprise are normal. You can assume that is reality. You can also assume that the unexpected can't be controlled. What you can control, however, is your attitude towards the unexpected. ...
In the “Play Your Own Best Game” he has both one of the most useful parts of the book, and one of the things that most aggravated me. I'm a “confirmed generalist”, and the author foreshadows the irritating “ninja/rockstar/one-trick-pony” employment world by decades in insisting one needs to “be great at one thing”, which is just swell if you're a tennis prodigy who's been doing endless hours on the court since you still had your baby teeth, but it's an intellectual death for anybody with any breadth. Just sayin'. The beneficial thing here is a pretty handy “strength assessment”, which leads into a bit on “designing your own game”. Here's another point where the age of the book is telling … he's writing from a time when companies couldn't fill the slots they were wanting to hire for (leaving lots of employment options), as opposed to today when long stretches of involuntary unemployment are increasingly the norm. I suppose he also semi-predicts the “work for yourself (because nobody is hiring)” reality by sketching out this:
      It is more critical than ever to work in an area in which you are utilizing your strengths and natural skills. You'll not only be more productive and creative, but you will also enjoy what you are doing more, which will further increase your effectiveness.
Again, I suspect the “joy” section here is long past us in the current economy, where it is frequently impossible to get work with things one is skilled in, let alone something one likes … but he talks of a study of 1,500 people, where 83 percent were in jobs they chose for making money, and 17 percent were in jobs they loved. At the end of 20 years, 101 of the 1,500 had become millionaires, and all but one had come out of the much-smaller-sample “love the work” group. Interesting, but depressing at the same time (although I'm sure he's accuse me of being a “firehoser” for saying that)!

Anyway, I found If it Ain't Broke...Break It! a decent read, if not the “essential” book it had been pitched to me as. It covers a lot of ground, is light in tone, and full of enough interesting tidbits to keep the reader engaged, and is remarkably “evergreen” considering its vintage. I think it would have been better with more “workbook” aspects, but I guess that's what the author's ultimately selling, so he's not wanting to give it away. It appears like this might still be in print, but (as noted up top) you can get a “very good” used copy for as little as a penny (plus shipping) were you interested in taking this particular time-tunnel journey.

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Tags: book review
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