Project Management Institute

Who "gets it" now?

Change is pandemic, but the fever shouldn't necessarily be quashed. While transformation is contagious, self-awareness is harder to pass along.

BY RICHARD WALKER

 

“He doesn't get it.” “They just don't get it.” “When are they going to get it?” “Getting it” was one of those ideas that seemed to be everywhere and in everything at the end of the last decade.

One example: At a conference on Internet business three years ago, I listened to a brace of young, evangelistic executives from one global company berating much older and more experienced managers for not “getting” that the world had changed, their business had changed, the digital revolution was with us right here and right now and, if they didn't shape up pretty quickly, they would be headed for the scrap heap.

“Getting it” wasn't about any set of facts, though, not as far as I could tell. It wasn't about markets or even products that actually existed yet. It was about the belief that the current world was fundamentally different from what had gone before and that everyone must behave differently if they wanted to survive. And how, exactly, was the world different? Well … never mind that right now.

Many if not most of these “getting-it” evangelists have now disappeared from the face of the earth. The consultancy business, for one, has taken a terrible hit: The market for being told how to invest in a world that doesn't exist has shrunk to zero.

In retrospect, it all seems a bit silly. Why were we listening to all that stuff, let alone believing it? Business strategy and organization always have been partly driven by fashion, and nothing looks nuttier than the fashion before last, but surely, this was on another scale. If you take nothing more than the two-year fall in the total capitalization of the NASDAQ stock index and its European equivalents, then many would conclude that here was a thinking error that cost thousands of billions.

Even when our businesses are based on communication and collaboration— perhaps especially if that is so—we know the world is bigger than us and that we certainly don't “get” it all. Indeed, the most global businesses often wasted the most money during the latter part of the technology business boom.

There are a couple of things to be said on that score. The “getting-it” fever produced so many bad decisions because a lot of companies were cornered into acting on fear and ignorance of the outside world.

Many business organizations are like sealed containers. For them, the world beyond their own defined borders often is an unknown quantity. When the talk turned to whether they got it or they didn't get it, the ignorant got scared. They feared that, in this new environment of unlimited information and borderless communication, the outside world would come pouring in and mess everything up.

At some level, we all can understand that. Even when our businesses are based on communication and collaboration—perhaps especially if that is so—we know the world is bigger than us and that we certainly don't “get” it all. Indeed, the most global businesses often wasted the most money during the latter part of the technology business boom. To discover who is vulnerable to the next round of “getting-it” fever, consider the possibility that the answer is you. Recognizing the fever symptoms is probably the best prevention.

And, to some of those “getting-it” evangelists who now are nowhere to be found: Come back. You were right. For example, those two conference attendees who laid down the law three years ago actually were employed by a business that has aggressively exploited the Internet in a way that has made it a household name. The world really has changed. The big shift from analogue to digital together with the move from closed to open borders really is a transforming force.

Of all disciplines, project management should understand that. And we shouldn't be tempted to forget it just because a lot of cash got burned on bad advice. PM

Richard Walker is European business strategy editor of the Economist Intelligence Unit's Business Europe, a producer and presenter for the BBC World Service Radio, and a feature writer for The Economist, GQ, Sunday Business and The Sunday Telegraph.

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PM NETWORK | MARCH 2003 | www.pmi.org

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