“Who Says Elephant Can’t Dance” by Louis Gerstner Jr.

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This is a remarkable story of IBM revival told by its ex-chief Louis Gerstner Jr. First of all I must say that I was not amused by the fact that he never intended to write this story. This is such a powerful insight of the revival of an iconic company and it must be told to the world that what is important. Great companies survive and reflect in the market place not simply because of operational capabilities but also because of its various other core facets built around its cultural domain. First of all I must say that people like Louise Gerstner must not only write a book once in a lifetime but must always write every day.

The iconic history of IBM dates back to early twentieth century when Thomas J. Watson, Sr. combined many small companies to form historic “International Business Machines” à IBM. The invention of Mainframe which bring fresh flows to the computing world and the complete revival of digital computer age. The strive to being relevant and evolving of deep cultural aspects developing over the years created many stringent internal/external unmanageable joints. In late 60s IBM was on the verge of not only losing its iconic operational capabilities but also trust of its major customers. Louis Gerstner’s book portrays unprecedented vision and more so grit and conviction which bring in a directional change.

Louis Gerstner understood early in the game that something seriously wrong in the very culture of IBM which are contributing to the major hurdles i.e. loss of customer trust, mindless rush for decentralization, nonsensical alliances and most importantly the confusion and serious issues around the Performance Management system. Operation Bear Hug was one of first step were Louis Gerstner made sure to break the market perception that its difficult to deal with IBM. Selected top executives were asked to go and meet the customers and listen to the customer problem and report back on the issues. This was kind of first step in breaking the age old culture and making sure that things will change and IBM is going to build a culture of “Outside in” and not inside out. This was kind of transformational first step in breaking the wrongly conceived and long practiced behaviors at the market place. Louis Gerstner’s second consecutive step in de-marking the Iconic MC (Management Committee) was another bold step which altered the culture of decision making at the top. The visionary MC became irrelevant because of its prearranged consensus outcomes. I specifically liked the metaphor used to compare MC with Chinese court having power beyond their visible responsibilities. In the backdrop of remarkable achievement of MC over the years, this change by Louis Gerstner was not only bold but also portrays the signs of an evolving character of a visionary company. The book portrays these significant events with simple words and clearly link up with flow of thoughts of the reader.

Holding on the core vision, building leadership team and restructuring of new board members inline to break the inside dominance and completely aligned with the large base of internal customers with visionary communication were few of the key transformational steps which helped Louis Gerstner to not only gain hold but also create an atmospheric vision and confidence at the market place. Each chapter and details provided in the book very clearly portrays the deep rooted management conviction rhyme through the top to bottom in the hierarchy. In the commercial set up, this can only be achieved with visionary conviction.

Reviving the brand with one voice one agency and transforming the key cultural aspects helped him reviving the IBM brand globally. For me the most intriguing aspect of the change was to reset the Compensation Philosophy which helped in bringing fresh rhythm and allowed for distasteful necessities. Various conventional methods were muted out and a complete fresh direction was allowed. By reading the book till the mid you get the feeling that Louis Gerstner got the conviction and was very clear what he was doing. The various conventional practices where broken with Commonality to Differentiation, from Fixed reward to Variables rewards, from Internal benchmark to External benchmark and more so from Entitlement to Performance.

The book also provide an inside view of Louis Gerstner’s strategy aspects where he transformed many established market behaviors in making Big Bets, the key integral aspects of Integration, the Emergence of e-business and focusing on the Key Portfolios etc, have given directional change and infused transformational change which bring IBM back to the fore front in the software business.

While I read this book, the most intriguing aspect which touched me the most was the aspects portrayed about the historic IBM culture which created right through the Watson Sr. age and also continued deeply after him. There is no doubt that IBM pioneered many key cultural elements which later adopted even by governments. The IBM cultural richness and the need for change simply reflect the evolving need of society and required continued adjustments. The aspects dealing with the need for a culturally rich company to change only reflect the dynamism of business world. The portrayal of the IBM Cultural aspects simply displays the solid grip of Louis Gerstner’s on the critical change elements and he even clearly reflect in the book “that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game –it is the game”. The efforts and portrayal of change to the Inside –Out approach, the change in the very sense for customer first in spite of own’s technology richness and the change to the bureaucracy etc. were displayed very well and clearly reflect upon the Louis Gerstner’s enormous efforts in changing an iconic company. Louis Gerstner also touched upon the futuristic aspects of change which he undertook during his time at IBM. Creating and waking up the Leadership team, change in the competency approach and the restless self-renewal was few of the key aspects written with flow and very easy to feel the change which IBM gone through during his time. The book also dealt with the various aspects of behavioral change which touches even contemporary aspects of doing business. Few of the cultural changes which specifically caught my attention are from “I tell you” to “in the shoes of Customer”, from “Do it my way” to “Do it customer way” from “United States” to “Global Sharing” from “Rule Driven” to “Principle Driven” from “Value me” to “Value Us” “Not Invented Here” to “Learning Organization” and off course many more. Louis Gerstner’s also portrayed few of the guiding issues and lessons learned which kind summarize his efforts at the IBM.

Overall the book “Who Says Elephant Can’t Dance” is a good reading for corporate executives and even for the people interest in intriguing aspects of Organizational Cultural change. I also liked the free flow of writing styles and the use of simple words makes it a very interesting reading.  

 

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