You Say You Want a Revolution?

We all want to change the world. But does business change really require revolutionary zeal? Two important new books offer sharply competing perspectives on the virtues of business bolshevism.

Book: Leading the Revolution
Author: Gary Hamel
Publisher: Harvard Business School Press
Price: $29.95

Book: One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy
Author: Thomas Frank
Publisher: Doubleday
Price: $26

You know you've reached an inflection point in the evolution of business ideas (or at least a transition point in your own thinking) when two new books appear, one by the world's top business strategist, the other by a critic of almost everything connected to business -- and you're not sure which one to root for. But that's the situation I find myself in.

Leading the Revolution is the latest tract from Gary Hamel -- superstar author, transAtlantic instructor, and self-styled revolutionary theorist. One Market Under God is the latest work of social criticism from Thomas Frank -- not exactly a household name in business circles, but a quick-witted writer with a sharp eye for the absurd.

What's so interesting about these books is that they are mirror images of each other. Hamel, who has been dazzling us for years with insights on business strategy, is right on almost all of his substance -- but the tone of his book is so annoyingly "revolutionary" that it interferes with the message. Frank is a true master of skewering overheated prose of the sort that Hamel offers. Unfortunately, he so thoroughly misunderstands the new economy that it's difficult to enjoy his takedowns. My advice? Make use of the virtues of both books, try to look beyond their shortcomings, and walk away smarter.

Who Wants to Be a Revolutionary?

First things first: Gary Hamel's new book is packed with savvy insights. Hamel is a master of explaining how big companies can adjust to the Net, how senior executives can tap the brains of people who have the best ideas, rather than the most seniority, and how everyone in business can figure out how to make an impact on their organization.

The problem with Leading the Revolution is the unbridled fervor with which Hamel presents these solid ideas. Just feast on some of the rhetoric in this book (written, after all, by a guy who is affiliated with the London Business School and the Harvard Business School): "You can become the author of your own destiny," he implores. "You can look the future in the eye and say: I am no longer a captive to history. Whatever I can imagine, I can accomplish. I am no longer a vassal in a faceless bureaucracy. I am an activist, not a drone.... I am a Revolutionary."

Or revel in Hamel's anticipation about the work of revolution: "You understand the revolutionary imperative. You feel it in your bones. You're vibrating with excitement at the thought of doing something new, building something radical, and you can't shut up about it.... So whaddya do? Beat your head against the walls of your cubicle? Throw yourself in front of the chairman's limo? Bide your time until the morons recognize your genius and promote you? Take early mental retirement? Enroll in a seminary?"

Phew! To be sure, Fast Company has had its own moments of rhetorical exuberance over the past five years. But after so much gut-wrenching change -- not to mention 80-hour workweeks, countless nights on the road, and email at midnight followed by email at dawn -- most of the businesspeople that I encounter have outgrown whatever fascination they might have had with the idea of business as a platform for "revolution." Yes, the nature of economic value has changed. Yes, the logic of competition is morphing. Yes, people are inventing new ways to work. But what most people are searching for today is a set of business ideas and a strategy for personal success that allow them to do great work, to build winning companies, to keep on innovating -- and maybe to have dinner with their families a few nights a week. Who really wants to be a revolutionary?

That said, if you can get beyond the book's Marxism-Leninism-Hamelism, you will find a set of ideas and practices that speak directly to people's real concerns. Not surprisingly, Hamel's most powerful insights are about the nature of strategy itself. Competition, he says, is not between companies, or technologies, or even products. It is between business concepts. The question is not, What products do you make? The question is, What ideas do you stand for? "Unless you and your company become adept at business concept innovation," Hamel argues, "more imaginative minds will capture tomorrow's wealth." That's because past success has never been less relevant than it is today. "Never has incumbency been worth less," Hamel argues. "The Internet has turned bricks and mortar into millstones. And venture capitalists pour millions of dollars into terrorist training camps for industry insurgents." (Here we go again with that revolutionary zeal.)

It's wonderfully useful stuff -- and you don't have to be a revolutionary to put it to work. So come down from the hills, retire your fatigues, and use this book as a guide to competition in the new economy.

Who Wants to Punch a Revolutionary?

Thomas Frank is as fascinated with the "business revolution" as Gary Hamel is -- but for totally different reasons. Frank may be one of the world's most devoted students of business gurus. George Gilder, Tom Peters, Peter Senge -- he's read them all, probed them for every foible, and put their ideas through his ideological blender. He is also, it should be noted, a devoted student of Fast Company. He seems to take our articles as seriously as our readers do -- while reaching different conclusions about their intent and value. (Here's his take on one of our most influential cover stories: "It was a terrifying glimpse of the coming total-corporate state, like Dress for Success rewritten by Chairman Mao.")

So what does Frank make of the new business ideology in which he immerses himself? Well, it's easy to figure out what he's against. He's against right-wing ideologues who portray the NASDAQ stock-market average as a barometer of social well-being. He's against dotcom millionaires who confuse their personal wealth with evidence of superior moral worth. He's against companies that appropriate the symbols of political reform to pretend that they exist not to turn a profit, but to change the world.

My favorite example along these lines: Frank's hilariously scathing deconstruction of E*Trade's 1999 annual report, which "used photos of black passengers sitting in the back of a bus" to establish its change-the-world credentials. Rosa Parks wouldn't sit still for racism, the images imply, so why should investors sit still for outrageous fees? According to Frank, "The company's CEO concluded this exercise in pseudo-radical chest-thumping with this funky rallying cry: 'Bodacious! The revolution continues.' "

Bodacious, indeed. How can any reader with even a slightly open mind not enjoy this skewering of such a deserving target? But after a while, even a sympathetic reader begins to wonder, What is Thomas Frank for, exactly? Would he prefer that we return to the 1950s, when we could look forward to 30-year careers with the same giant company? Is he so unpersuaded that there's something different about the generation of companies formed over the last decade that he's prepared to lump Amazon.com, General Motors, Philip Morris, and Yahoo! into the same category -- business with a capital "B" -- and assign all of their leaders the same values, motives, and goals?

It looks to me like his answer to those questions is yes -- and that points to the weakness of Frank's worldview. For all of his cutting-edge cultural observations, Frank comes off as an economic dinosaur. He just cannot fathom the idea that people can find value in what they do at the office, that they can identify personally with their jobs, that work can be fun, challenging, even meaningful -- as opposed to a form of punishment that you endure in order to put food on the table and put your kids through college. He can't relate to the most basic promise of this new era: that you can do important things in the world without having to be part of a vast enterprise.

There's a fine line between the promise of the new economy and the ideological hyperventilation that goes along with it. However, the silly exuberance that Frank so ably chronicles does not obliterate a more profound reality: There is something different, something more humane, about business in the 21st century. If Frank would spend less time poking fun at the theorists, and spend more time with the doers, he might see that new reality for himself. He might even like what he sees.

Sidebar: FC Recommends

Big Idea: Surfing the Edge of Chaos: The Laws of Nature and the New Laws of Business, by Richard Pascale, Mark Millemann, and Linda Gioja (Crown Business, $26.95). What does the decline of Sears have in common with forest fires? This book answers that and other questions.

Best Practice: The Anatomy of Buzz: How to Create Word of Mouth Marketing, by Emanuel Rosen (Currency Doubleday, $24.95). In an era of too much of everything, the best marketing is word-of-mouth marketing.

Sleeper: Labor Day, by Floyd Kemske (Catbird Press, $22). The fourth in a series of "corporate nightmares." Be afraid, be very afraid.

Keeper: The Message of the Markets: How Financial Markets Foretell the Future - and How You Can Profit From Their Guidance, by Ron Insana (HarperBusiness, $25). Imagine -- a smart business book by a TV personality! Insana's stock keeps rising.

Sidebar: Cheat Sheet

Gurus -- gotta love 'em. Here are not-so-great moments in punditry, courtesy of Thomas Frank, plus one gem from Gary Hamel.

Anita Roddick on an entrepreneur's mind: "There is a fine line between the delinquent mind of an entrepreneur and that of a crazy person."

Rich insights from Lester Thurow: "Those with great wealth are important, to be courted. They are deserving of respect and demand deference. They are the winners. Wealth ... is the only game to play if you want to prove your mettle. It is the big leagues. If you do not play there, by definition you are second rate."

George Gilder on an entrepreneur's soul: "It is the entrepreneurs who know the rules of the world and the laws of God."

Tom Peters gets a big idea: "It's easier to kill an organization than to change it. Big idea: DEATH!"

Gary Hamel soars like a goose: "Watch a flock of geese turning and swooping in flight, undeterred by wind, obstacles, and distance. There is no grand vizier goose, no chairman of the gaggle.... Yet their course is true. And they are a flock.... Too many executives have been trying to design flight plans for their far-flung flock rather than working to create the conditions that would help their brood get off the ground and on their way to new and distant shores."

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