Olaf: Bob, I’ve called this brainstorming meeting between you, our CEO; Kevin, our CIO; and Harry, our CFO, to brief you on an awesome new strategic development. At our Birds-of-a-Feather session last night in Tarrytown, the Westchester Lateral Thinkers Free Association heard a spellbinding keynote address from Robert Pirsig.
Bob: Who is this Pirsig?
Olaf: Bob, you must have read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”?
Bob: No, I can’t say I have. My dad bought me a ’52 Chevy when I graduated, and I never looked back-well, only when reversing, I guess.
Olaf: The book has nothing to do with motorcycles. It is about fundamentals, quality, things like that.
Kevin: Total Quality Management, Baldrige awards, and so on?
Olaf: No, I mean quality from a philosophical standpoint: values and aesthetics.
In his Zen book, Pirsig said you could divide the world into Classical vs. Romantic quality. When you take a motorcycle apart, and you look at the way the pieces fit together; that’s Classical quality. But where do you find the speed? What’s the part number corresponding to the wind in your face on a hot day? That’s Romantic quality.
Bob: I hope we won’t be seeing any more of those office romances, Olaf.
Olaf: Romantic here means imaginative rather than erotic. But last night in Tarrytown, Pirsig moored his boat by the Tappan Zee and came to tell us that he got it all wrong! His new book, “Lila: An Inquiry into Morals,” is about a sailing trip down the Hudson River with this girl, during which he comes up with a new way of looking at the world. I think we can slot this straight into our corporate priorities.
Harry: If the first book was about motorcycles and romance, and this book is about sailing boats and his girlfriend, don’t we have some kind of combination of Popular Mechanics, National Geographic and Harold Robbins here?
Olaf: It’s nothing like that. Here is what Pirsig explained. The real struggle in this world is change vs. continuity. You have to change, or you’ll never adapt, but if you don’t also have some continuity then you won’t survive. So his new book is about dynamic vs. static quality. Static quality is the glue that holds everything together, while dynamic quality deliberately tries to bust it apart. And it all has its own structure, something like this:
| | |
| | | |
| | | Intellectual
| | Social
Olaf: In Pirsig’s system, evolution is the constant struggle between change and the steady state. We don’t make profits during times of radical change-only once the
changes have settled down. But if we don’t change, we won’t adapt. The market makes us obsolete, and we file for Chapter 11.
Pirsig also establishes a hierarchy of values. Think about the struggles of the last few hundred years. History books tell us you once could be hanged in England for stealing a loaf of bread. We now know that biological values are more fundamental than inorganic values. What about the police cracking down on a riot? That happens because social values rate higher than biological values. But what if the riot is called by Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg? It looks as if intellectual values-every man for a vote, regardless of creed or color-outstrip social values. And the whole static caboodle is outclassed by dynamic value, because if you don’t keep changing you’ll turn to stone.
Bob: What does this stuff mean for corporate America?
Olaf: I think Pirsig’s social values are also bound up with corporate values. After all, much of our interaction as human beings now involves corporate activity. Think of all the new pressures: environmental concerns, for example. That looks like intellectual values presiding over corporate values. Equal opportunity, health care, Third-World development-all these indicate ideas outranking conventional corporate values. Why else did Chief Executive vote Roy Vagelos of Merck 1992 CEO of the Year? Answer: partly because Merck gave away a drug for free to cure river blindness.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Pirsig’s book is that so many other authors are picking up on the same theme from a-different direction. In “The Fifth Discipline,” Peter Senge says: “Learning disabilities are tragic in children, but they are fatal in organizations. Because of them, few corporations live even half as long as a person-most die before they reach the age of 40.”
Harry: And here’s yet another one, from “The Best of Chief Executive,” an anthology of CE essays: Roy Serpa talks about getting stuck in the “doom loop” if you ignore innovation.
Kevin: I know we CIOs are younger than you gray-hairs, but I found a quote from a writer I’ll bet none of you have heard of: “Mr. Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action.” I think we should sit up and take note of all this dynamic/static, innovate/implement stuff.
Bob: Hey, that quote sounds familiar. Who did you say wrote it?
Kevin: Oh, some obscure Brit named Ian Fleming in a hook called “Goldfinger.”
Robert Bittlestone is founder and chief executive of Meta praxis, a London and New York-based consulting group specializing in executive information and strategic control.