December 7, 2009
Book Short: Innovation and Discipline
The Puritan Gift, by Kenneth and William Hopper, is a bit of a mixed bag. The authors have a wonderful point to make — that American businesses have thrived over the centuries due to a mix of innovation and discipline that descended from the country’s Puritan roots, and that when they lose their way, it’s because they diverge from those roots. The book is also an interesting, if somewhat cursory, history of American industry. And it playfully debunks some great myths of corporate American life over the last 50 years. But the book has a few too many moments where assertions aren’t supported by data — where its theories overreach into explanations of other aspects of American life that may or may not be appropriate.
That said, it is a good read. The main point is that there are five driving principles behind American business success over the years, the first four coming from the Puritans and the fifth from the French:
– the melding of the workplace with the search for a higher purpose in life
– an aptitude for the application of mechanical skills
– the subordination of the individual to the group
– the ability to assemble and galvanize forces to a single purpose on a massive scale
– a keen interest in and passion for technology
These things ring true as driving forces of successful businesses today. The distillation (or abstraction) of these forces, though, is the most powerful lesson from the book as far as I’m concerned, which is that businesses, and organizations in general, succeed the most when they are led by people who really understand the substance of the business and not by professional managers or financial engineers, and when they practice integrated decision-making, which is to say that the same people make decisions, plan for execution, execute, and follow up. You don’t have to look too far to see a lot of examples of how the absence of domain expertise and integrated decision-making has led to spectacular failures, from Enron to Wall Street’s meltdown to the Iraq War.
The Puritan Gift ends on a hopeful note about restoring America’s leadership in global industry by returning to our Puritan roots. It’s way too early to assess whether or not this hypothesis will turn out to be correct, but the examples the authors give in the concluding chapter are certainly good food for thought for anyone who runs a business. Thanks to my friend Marc Maltz of Triad Consulting for the book.