Borrowing from adventures in the Tanzanian bush, close encounters with some of the world’s most innovative thinkers, and the harrowing early days of Fast Company, and Alan Webber, Fast Company‘s co-founding editor, took to the Japan Society stage in New York last night to discuss the new book in which he reveals what all that accumulated experience has taught him.
Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself, is vintage Webber, packaging decades of wisdom into short, pithy chapters that are long on storytelling and short on windy biz jargon.
Appearing before a packed audience of friends, acolytes, and Fast Company staffers, v 1.0 (and a few of us v 4.0 folks as well), Webber’s message was sober, yet hopeful. “America has always had a remarkable ability to rebound from economic hard times,” he said. The process is often messy, and failure is to be expected, but our knack for innovation is a national strength that has gotten us through hard times before, and will likely fuel our rebound again.
Those who succeed in this environment, Webber said, are likely those who can assess the reality of the situation as it is–not the way they wish it would be–and act accordingly. “A fighter pilot I know told me that he was trained to operate by the OODA principle: Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act,” he said. “People can use that process in their own lives. The faster you can grasp what’s going on, the sooner you can make the changes needed to adapt.”
Discussing the meltdown of the newspaper industry, Webber also cited one of his favorite rules, #5: “Change is a math formula: change happens when the cost of the status quo is greater than the risk of change.” Pushed to the brink of bankruptcy, newspapers, automobile manufacturers and other imperiled industries may finally be forced to make changes they resisted in happier times. That, he said, is when innovation really happens.
In response to a question from David Carey, publisher of Portfolio, about whether the economic crisis has really spurred a fundamental change for the better, as many have suggested, Webber laughed. “Whenever someone suggests that things are changing for good, I tend to lock my wallet in a safety deposit box. I don’t believe it. It’s soon to know if what’s happening now will change the fundamentals, but it could–and this is my hope–change the questions we’re asking. And that to me is the most important thing: Asking the right questions.”
Noting that the book had arisen from his life-long habit of writing good advice he’d received on 3-by-5 cards, Webber suggested the audience do the same. “There is no big answer out there to the problems that we see as individuals and as companies,” he said. “Solutions don’t appear that way, fully formed. They emerge from these smart observations that cut through all the clutter and make sense of one thing, sometimes a small thing. But you know that kind of brilliant insight when you hear it. So our job is to look and listen for those, to weave them together whenever possible, and to share them. That’s a strategy for figuring out the world around us.”
Webber ended the talk by asking for Rule #53 from the audience. A woman in the front offered this pearl of wisdom: “Remember: it’s a memo. It’s not real life.”
Earlier in the day, Webber appeared on Brian Lehrer’s show on WNYC. You can listen to a podcast of the interview here.