Sunday, August 2, 2009

What's the Big Idea?

It's in "Rules of Thumb": if you want to write a business plan, start by asking yourself, "What's the big idea?" It's a question that's come back to me as I've tried over the last few months to explain to people what the big idea is that's at the heart of Rules. What's the message?
Asking the question of myself has proved to be a useful exercise. Now that the book has been out for four months, now that I've done countless radio interviews, given speeches in front of audiences from New York to Seattle, from Vienna to Copenhagen, from Washington, DC to San Francisco, what exactly is the message that I embedded in those 52 rules? When you step back from what Seth Godin delightfully described as "nuggets" and Dan Pink compared to a batch of espressos, what's the take away?
You'd think an author would knew intuitively, instinctively what his book's message is. These days, you'd think an author would have mastered the answer to the question to sell the book in the first place. But my experience is a little different; I've found that usually the audience, readers, and fans tell you what your book is about, if you listen carefully enough.
That said, my first move wasn't to the comments that readers have shared on the Rule #53 space or on the comments readers have left or on the comments on the Amazon page, or even in the emails that have come to me from readers.
Instead, I went back to the foreward that Jim Collins wrote a few years ago for a collection of articles published in book form as "Fast Company's Greatest Hits"--the first 10 years of innovative business thinking in the magazine that Bill Taylor and I started.
What did Jim say about the early days of Fast Company?
Jim found 5 basic premises embedded in the magazine:
1. Work is not a means to an end; it is an end in itself.
2. If your competitive scorecard is money, you will always lose.
3. Business is a mechanism for social change--for good and ill.
4. Entrepreneurship is a life concept, not just a business concept.
5. Performance is the fundamental requirement.
Certainly those 5 premises are also baked into Rules of Thumb; no surprise there--I'm the same guy who was baking them in.
But there's something else, an overarching theme or premise that relates to the immediacy of the moment of now.
And for that I went back to the original business plan for Fast Company, to the first letter from the editors that laid out the magazine's philosophy. In it, we wrote, "The world is changing, and business is changing the world."
Only today, the circumstances are different. Look at the front page of the paper today and you'll find a story about a money manager who stands to make a $100 million bonus at the very moment that the financially driven economy is still stalled, at the very moment when the lives of millions of people around the world have been ruined by money speculation. The New York Times article raises the question of whether or not it makes sense for the man to get his $100 million; it doesn't ask the question of whether or not the system that produced the bonus in the first place is suffering from a fundamental flaw.
Ultimately the overarching message of Rules is a re-write of that business plan sentence from Fast Company. Today, the sentence reads, "The world needs to change, and business needs to change to make that larger change possible." We need a mental model for how we do business in the first place. The old play book keeps landing our economy, our companies, our social fabric, and the lives of too many of our citizens in the ditch. Every decade since I've been tracking business, management, and work, we've had at least one, and often more than one, serious crackup--a bubble, a scandal, a government-organized rescue. And at the same time, over those same decades, we've seen the beginnings of new practices and new principles that guide business people and companies in new and exciting directions. We are writing new Rules of Thumb because we desperately need them to create the future we want.
The Big Idea at the heart of Rules of Thumb?
The world needs us to change it, and we need new rules to change business to change the world.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb