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Debatable Greats

The 75 Greatest Management Decisions Ever Made… and 21 of the WorstBy Stuart Crainer. Amacom Publishing. 239 pp. $24.95.It’s currently …

The 75 Greatest Management Decisions Ever Made… and 21 of the Worst

By Stuart Crainer. Amacom Publishing. 239 pp. $24.95.

It’s currently fashionable to pick the best and worst list of the last decade or millennium for virtually every category-actor, athlete, advertisement, play, movie, television commercial, ad inifinitum. And why not? It can be fun to do, it forces re-reading of some interesting old files, and it can start a few friendly arguments at the local tavern.

Without tying himself down to any time period, Cash Balance Stuart Crainer gets into the act with his 75 Greatest Management Decisions Ever Made, which is covering a lot of ground and time. Crainer does just that. His oldest decisions are the Chinese development of currency in 1000 BC, which, of course, was the beginning of the advertising industry. His most current big decision is Jeff Bezos selling books over the Internet via Amazon.

He meanders around a number of innovative byways. He nominates inventors such as Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, William Hoover, and Edwin Land. He brings in a lot of people who started successful new businesses-Ray Kroc of McDonalds, Michael Dell of Dell Computer, and Luciana Benetton of retailing. The ideas of Peter Drucker and Edward Deming get a hearing by virtue of other executives accepting their recommendations. Many of the business executives chosen are the usual suspects-Jack Welch of GE for his Work Out program, Reg Jones for picking Jack Welch as his successor at GE, Jim Burke of Johnson & Johnson for his Tylenol recall, Alfred Sloan for his GM organization, and Thomas Watson for introducing his 360 computer line. In each, he has a two- to three-page story about the man or the idea.

I have no trouble with about half of his choices, but mixed in with the valid management decisions are an equivalent number of highly questionable picks for the honor of being one of the greatest decisions of all time. Elvis Presley joining the Army in 1958 just wasn’t that big a deal. The development of Post-Its at 3M was a clever new product idea, but not overwhelming. The Grateful Dead decision to allow their fans to tape their concerts-does anyone care? The formation of the Hanseatic League in Northern Germany in 1058-that’s really reaching for it. And, although I’m a graduate of Harvard Business School, I had never realized before-and still don’t that the decision to launch the Harvard Business Review in 1922 and to set up the HBS Fund in 1949 were earthshakers for Harvard Business School or any other school. Selections of offbeat choices like these weakened the impact of the book for me.

Where did Crainer get all of his great decision-making selections? He went out to about 20 friends-mostly academics like Warren Bennis and Philip Kotler-and asked them for nominations. It beats doing one’s own research, but it brings in some screwy and not-so-great ideas.

Speaking of not-so-great ideas, included in Crainer’s Hall of Infamy, are the “21 Worst Decisions of All Time.” He gives this section only 14 pages in his book, which is more than it deserves, because most of his selections seem to be afterthoughts that serve to distract readers from the main part of the book. As a matter of fact, The New York Times of December 18, 1999, drew up a much better list of lousy decisions.

Taking the book as a whole, I gave it a C+. It’s not well enough researched nor well enough organized nor well enough written to get a higher grade. Crainer, regrettably, does not get into the anatomy of “great decision making,” perhaps because his case histories are so eclectic and cover such a time span. There are few lessons to be learned, and few morals to be drawn. Most of Crainer’s selections were not the planned and orchestrated type of management decision-making that CEOs regularly have to face up to. They were more of an evolutionary nature, or where luck played an inordinate role.

The return on investment I got out of this book was that it prodded me to think for myself what are really the greatest decisions being made by CEOs and boards these days. So I wrote a column on it.

 Formerly the CEO of F.&M. Schaefer (1972-1977), Robert W. Lear is chairman of CE’s advisory board. He also teaches at Columbia Business School, where he is an executive-in-residence. He is an independent general partner of Equitable Capital Partners and holds directorships with Scudder Institutional Funds; Korea Fund; and Welsh, Carson, Anderson, Stowe Venture Capital Co.; and is a partner of Lear, Yavitz & Associates.

About robert w. lear