Thursday, May 15, 2008

Champy's "Outsmart"--less than meets the eye

We talked some about business gurus last week, and while the name Jim Champy wasn't on the WSJ list, he would have been in the past. So when I was sent his new book, "Outsmart," I put down the other books I was reading to take this one up.

The good news was, at 165 pages with ample white space, it didn't take long to read. The bad news was that it fell far below my expectations. "Outsmart" is the business-literature equivalent of those new paper-like mint strips you lay on your tongue. The ideas dissolve in an instant.

Why? The book lacks the rigor of other recent books in the strategy literature, "The Opposable Mind" and "Big Think Strategy." It fails to paint the far-reaching vision of "The Future of Management." It is a collection of inspiring stories, and that has value. After reading it, however, I had difficulty taking away any lesson other than to be an extraordinary success, you had to be an extraordinary person with a strong vision and have excellent timing--not a very useful blueprint for most leaders.

At the end of each chapter is a summary of learnings. In "Compete By Doing Everything Yourself," Champy offers this lesson:

Control what matters. Doing everything yourself speaks to a very human impulse. When Cappello [the CEO of S.A. Robotics, the company that competed by doing everything itself] talked to me about his need to control his company's processes, I immediately understood that he was really talking about his distaste for losing control, especially for the kind of product he makes.

If you manufacture a complex, customized product, the need for control is clear. If you are providing a more commoditized product or service, however, outsourcing part of your work might be a legitimate option or, in some cases, a competitive necessity.

In other words, you can succeed by doing everything yourself, or by having others do work for you. It depends.

And in another chapter he writes, "I'm a strong believer that a company must be a low-cost producer to compete." Really? Is S.A. Robotics, which builds everything internally, a low-cost provider?

To me, these are indications of a book without a center. Compared to "The Opposable Mind" or "Big Think Strategy," "Outsmart" is lightweight. There's no science behind the theories other than a Darwinian metaphor in Chapter 1. The explanations are anecdotal (most times, a single anecdote). And no unifying theme.

"The Opposable Mind" described founders or CEOs who could reconcile contradictory ideas and thereby create new markets. Each example (and there were many) reinforced that idea. So did the cognitive research cited. "Big Think Strategy" supplemented its case studies with a strategic method.

By contrast, "Outsmart" is a brief, easy to read, set of success stories, that together don't add up to an important book, sad to say.

Related Posts:
"Big Think Strategy" is a fun, inspiring read
The first great business book of 2008 ("The Opposable Mind")
On Gary Hamel's "The Future of Management"

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