William C. Taylor: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: July 4th, 2011 by bobmorris

Bill Taylor

Bill Taylor is a writer, a speaker, and entrepreneur who has shaped the global conversation about the best ways to compete, innovate, and succeed. As a cofounder and founding editor of Fast Company, he launched a magazine that won countless awards, and earned a passionate following among executives and entrepreneurs around the world. Taylor wrote a regular business column for the New York Times as well as a monthly column for London’s Guardian newspaper. He now writes a popular business blog for Harvard Business review. His previous book, Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win, was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller, and was named a “Business Book of the Year” by The Economist and the Financial Times. His new book, Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Company, and Challenge Yourself, was published on January 4, 2011 by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. A graduate of Princeton University and the MIT Sloan School of Management, Taylor lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts with his wife and two daughters.

Morris: Before discussing any of your specific books, a few general questions. First, when and why did you decide to commit yourself to a career in business journalism?

Taylor: I’ve never thought of myself as a “journalist” per se. I am someone who loves the power of new ideas, loves to find people and organizations who are having an impact on the world around them, loves to bring those ideas to life by telling the stories of these innovators in ways that other people find inspiring and instructive. Short answer: I think I am in the “thought leadership” business rather than the “journalism” business.

Morris: Please explain the founding of Fast Company. What was its original mission? To what extent (if any) has that mission since changed?

Taylor: My cofounder Alan Webber and I were at the Harvard Business Review when we had the idea to start Fast Company. We didn’t have a plan for a “business” as much as we had a set of ideas about the future of work, leadership, and progress—ideas about which we were passionate and that we wanted to share with others.

I’ve always thought of Fast Company as a magazine about ambition and success–in the best sense of both those words. Not money and power, but meaning and impact. Fast Company is a magazine for leaders at every level and in any field who want to think big about their work–the kind of organization they want to build, the kind of impact they want to have, the kinds of products and services they want to launch. It’s also a magazine for people who are extremely competitive, but who don’t use money as the only measure of whether they win or lose. They worry more about the contribution they make, the legacy they leave, the impact they have.

Way back at the outset of the magazine, we convened a small gathering of Fast Company allies called the “Fast Pack.” Harriet Rubin, who was the founder of Doubleday Currency, the game-changing book imprint, said something that has stuck with me: “Freedom is a bigger game than power. Power is about what you can control. Freedom is about what you can unleash.” Fast Company has been and will always be a magazine for leaders who worry more about what they can unleash rather than what they can control.

Morris: As I survey the current state of the magazine world, I am reminded of the first line in Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Do you agree?

Taylor: With respect to the magazine world, I’d say it’s much more the worst of times than the best of times. The business model for print magazines really is broken. Fast Company continues to do great relative to the competition. In fact, we just learned that our 2010 increase in ad pages (26.5 percent) was greater than any other business magazine in the country. So that’s great!

But we started Fast Company 15 years ago, and it’s hard to capture just how different the economic environment is today. Costs are going up so fast—paper, postage, all that boring stuff that adds real dollars—and the advertising environment is just so tough on the print side.

Readers still love it—we literally have more subscribers than at any time in our history, and the energy on the Web is amazing. But magazines are no different from any other business. The “mainstream” part of the business is getting tougher much more quickly than the “up-and-coming” part of the business is getting easier.

Morris: I have read several dozen of your articles for various publications. You discuss perspectives on subjects that most other journalists either neglect or ignore. For example, you seem to be intrigued by counterintuitive thinking, presumably because you are a counterintuitive thinker. Is that a fair assessment?

Taylor: I love people and organizations that win big because they think different. That’s what gets me pumped up, that’s what gets my creative and competitive juices flowing. There’s just something exhilarating about getting to know a company that’s rewriting the rules of competition in its industry, a public official who has reimagined how to deliver a product or service to his or her constituents, a change agent inside a big organization that is trying to transform how that organization works.

That sense of not just out-hustling the competition but out-thinking the competition—that’s the fuel behind Fast Company, Mavericks at Work, and now Practically Radical. The settings and mood of the times for each of these projects may be different, but the spirit is the same.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original expectations. Why?

Taylor: As the cofounder of Fast Company, I’ve always been struck by the slow-going rate of change inside most organizations. In the earliest days of the magazine, after we had a business plan but before we published the premiere issue, we convened a conference around the theme, “How Do You Overthrow a Successful Company?” It wasn’t a gathering of hotshots eager to take on the corporate establishment. It was a gathering of big-picture thinkers and change agents from illustrious big companies who sensed that there were massive shifts on the horizon, but that there wasn’t a commitment among their colleagues to reckon with what was coming.

It was a great conversation, ahead of its time in many ways (this was 1995), and the outlook was grim. Roger Martin, now dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, warned that “the role of big companies is to turn great people into mediocre organizations.” Mort Meyerson, the much-admired CEO and philanthropist, then at the helm of Perot Systems, compared leading an organization in fast-changing times to “floating in lava in a wooden boat.” His plea to the group: “We need a new model to reach the future.

What a difference 15 years don’t make. Are those misgivings any less relevant today than they were back then—or the prospects for genuine transformation any less bleak? This is the hardest work there is.

Morris: In Leading Change, James O’Toole asserts that most resistance to change initiatives is the result of what he aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” In your opinion, how to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Taylor: James O’Toole is right. Most organizations in most fields suffer from a kind of tunnel vision, which makes it hard to envision a more positive future. That’s why the first challenge of change is originality—for leaders to see their organization and its problems as if they’ve never seen them before, and, with new eyes, to develop a distinctive point of view on how to solve them. All too often, especially in long-established companies, long-held expertise gets in the way of eye-opening innovation. As Cynthia Barton Rabe warns, in her book The Innovation Killers, “What we know limits what we can imagine.” But as we’ve seen time and again, it’s the leaders and change agents who see a different game that produce the best results.

That’s why the most effective leaders I know aren’t big fans of “benchmarking” the competition—a commonplace exercise for inspiring change that often serves to reinforce the problem of tunnel vision I just discussed. How enlightening is it, really, to learn from the “best in class” in your industry, especially if best in class isn’t all that great? So why not learn from innovators outside your industry as a way to shake things up and leapfrog your rivals?

Morris: According to recent research by both Gallup and TowersWatson, fewer than 30% of the employees in a workplace in the U.S. – on average – are actively and productively engaged. If the percentage is accurate, why so few?

Taylor: In his book Rules of Thumb, my Fast Company cofounder Alan Webber identifies two sets of questions that demand the attention of leaders. The first is familiar: “What keeps you up at night? What are the problems that nag at you?” The second is less familiar, but even more important: “What gets you up in the morning? What keeps you and your people more committed than ever, more engaged than ever, more excited than ever, particularly as the environment around you gets tougher and more demanding than ever?”

That’s a question every organization needs to ask and answer. Even the most disruptive and creative leaders recognize that long-term success is not just about thinking differently from other companies. It is also, and perhaps more importantly, about caring more than other companies—about customers, about colleagues, about how the organization conducts itself in a world with endless temptations to cut corners and compromise on values. For leaders, the pressing question isn’t just what separates you from the competition in the marketplace. It’s also what holds you together in the workplace.

Morris: Given the emergence of various electronic reading devices, opinions vary as to whether or not bound volumes are an endangered species. What do you think?

Taylor: Bound volumes are not an endangered species, in the same way that print magazines are not an endangered species. We still have radio, we still have TV, even though we have the Internet. No new technology fully replaces those that came before it.

There’s just more of everything. But bound books and print magazines certainly won’t be the dominant species, anymore. That’s both exciting and depressing. I love to hang out with innovators, but when it comes to processing ideas and consuming media, I am pretty old school. I still love curling up with a good (print) book.

Morris: Of all that C-level executives still don’t “get” about leadership and management, what is the single most serious misconception? How so?

Taylor: Most thinking about strategy, competition, and innovation emphasizes the intricacies of business models: revenues, costs, niches, leverage. But mental models are what separate organizations that are truly great from those that are just pretty good.

Which is why, at first blush, many of the organization and leaders in Practically Radical can seem exotic, eccentric, hard to fathom. They don’t just out-perform their rivals. They transform the sense of what’s possible in their fields. They don’t accept the limitations, tradeoffs, and middle-of-the-road sensibilities that define conventional wisdom in their fields. They are “extremists” in the best sense of that word. That’s what makes them so unusual—and so important.

Morris: Here’s a related question. What is the single most significant insufficiency in MBA degree programs even in the most prestigious business schools? What needs to be done in response to it?

Taylor: In my book, I highlight some truly game-changing research by Professor Saras D. Sarasvathy, who teaches entrepreneurship at the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia. Her research explores whether there is such a thing as “entrepreneurial thinking”—and whether it differs in important ways from how MBAs and traditional executives size up problems and identify opportunities.

The answer, she concludes, is an emphatic yes, and the differences boil down to the “causal” reasoning taught in business schools versus the “effectual” reasoning used by entrepreneurs. Causal reasoning  “begins with a pre-determined goal and a given set of means, and seeks to identify the optimal—fastest, cheapest, most efficient, etc.—alternative to achieve that goal.” This is the world of exhaustive (and exhausting) business plans, finely tuned ROI calculations, and portfolio diversification.

Effectual reasoning, on the other hand, “does not begin with a specific goal. Instead, it begins with a given set of means and allows goals to emerge contingently over time from the varied imagination and diverse aspirations of the founders and the people they interact with.” This is the world of nonstop experimentation, rapid prototyping, guerilla marketing, and leaps of faith.

But the real difference between traditional executives and game-changing entrepreneurs, Sarasvathy argues, boils down to a different take on the future. “Causal reasoning is based on the logic, To the extent that we can predict the future, we can control it,” she writes. That’s why big companies spend so much time on focus groups, market research, and statistical models. Effectual reasoning, on the other hand, “is based on the logic, To the extent that we can control the future, we do not need to predict it.”

Entrepreneurs, unlike traditional MBAs, have a very different take on the future. They understand that you “control” the future by inventing it yourself. That is, by doing more with less, by reacting quickly to setbacks and surprises rather than agonizing over how to avoid them, and by never losing sight of why you got started in the first placed—the impact you aim to have in your field and in the world.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Mavericks at Work, co-authored with Polly LaBarre. First, all of the business leaders with the most original minds who are discussed in the book are “mavericks.” More specifically, what dominant characteristics do they share in common?

Taylor: I’m a Princeton graduate, and I was at the school during the glory days of Hall of Fame coach Peter Carril and the Princeton basketball team. He captures the maverick spirit better than anyone. During his 29-year tenure, Carril’s teams regularly squared off against (and often beat) teams whose players were bigger, faster, and more physically gifted than his team. “The strong take from the weak,” his coaching mantra went, “but the smart take from the strong.”

Mavericks at Work was devoted to the proposition that in business, as in basketball, the smart can take from the strong—that the best way to out-perform the competition is to out-think the competition. Maverick companies aren’t always the largest in their field; maverick entrepreneurs don’t always make the cover of the business magazines. But mavericks do the work that matters most—the work of originality, creativity, and experimentation. They demonstrate that you can build companies around high ideals and fierce competitive ambitions, that the most powerful way to create economic value is to embrace a set of values that go beyond just amassing power, and that business, at its best, is too exciting, too important, and too much fun to be left to the dead hand of business as usual.

Morris: The book was published three years ago. Which companies have since emerged that also possesses the same dominant characteristics of a “maverick”?

Taylor: I’d have to highlight Tony Hsieh and his colleagues at Zappos.com, the online shoe and fashion retailer. I write about them in Practically Radical. This is a company that challenges conventional wisdom in just about everything it does—how it connects with customers, how it recruits and evaluates talent, how it measures success. Tony and his colleagues are just so conscientious about the “design principles” behind the whole organization, and the results have been incredible. Plus, it is one of the most fun workplaces I have ever seen. What a wild group of people!

Morris: Now please shift you attention to Practically Radical. As I began to work my way through your lively narrative, I was reminded of what Peter Drucker suggested in a Harvard Business Review article in 1963: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” Presumably you agree with Drucker.

Taylor: I agree with pretty much everything Peter Drucker says. Here’s how I would say it. Sure, we all have to make our organizations more efficient, more productive, more reliable. But the real magic today is to make our organizations more memorable to encounter. Efficiency counts—especially in this environment. But what employees and customers are hungry for are emotional and psychological connections to organizations and brands that set them apart from the crowd.

Morris: One of the major themes in your brilliant book is that organizations are transformed by those who comprise them. Therefore, the process must result in transformations of people (e.g. their values, mindsets, and priorities) as well as transformation of organizational of structures, policies, procedures, etc. Many business people I know insist that because of the current Great Recession (or whatever else you prefer to call), this is bad time for major changes. You think the opposite is true and I wholeheartedly agree. What are your reasons?

Taylor: We are all struggling to make sense of the fallout from a once-in-a-lifetime crisis that promises to shape the economy and the business culture for years to come, to learn lessons that will guide us as we recover and rebuild. My worry is that too many leaders will learn the wrong lessons, that they will become conservative and risk-averse, that they will resist deep-seated change rather than embrace it as the only way to emerge from the depths of their (and our) despair. That would be a huge mistake—and a terrible way to let a crisis go to waste.

You can’t use the long shadow of economic crisis and slow recovery as an excuse to downsize your dreams or stop taking chances. The challenge for leaders in every field is to emerge from turbulent times with closer connections to their customers, with more energy and creativity from their people, and with greater distance between them and their rivals. The organizations that opened my eyes and captured my imagination did so because they offered a compelling alternative to a demoralizing status quo—as the only way to create a compelling future for themselves.

Morris: Of all the business leaders in the world today, which one do you admire most? Why?

Taylor: Phew, tough one. I’d say Arkadi Kuhlmann, founder and CEO of ING Direct USA, the online savings bank—and a great force for financial sanity in a world that has lost its mind. He truly is a rebel with a cause, and he never stops taking chances. I’ve been following Arkadi’s journey for more than a decade, and he never ceases to amaze.

Morris: On Pages 115-116, you cite Dan Pink’s reference in his book Drive to Clare Booth Luce’s observation that a great man is one sentence. In your book, you pose the same powerful question to business leaders what’s your company’s sentence. I now ask you about Practically Radical: “What’s your book’s sentence?”

Taylor: How about two sentences? This book is meant as a guide for leaders in all walks of life who aspire to fix what’s wrong with their organizations, to launch new initiatives with the best chance to succeed, and to rethink the logic of leadership itself as they work to rally their colleagues around an agenda for renewal. In other words, it is a manifesto for change and a manual for achieving it — at a moment when change is the name of the game.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Taylor: “Hey, Bill, you look much thinner than all your photos, did you lose weight?” Yes, 40 pounds, actually. Thanks for asking! I am back to the weight I was at in college, and it feels great. I have “downsized” myself, in the best sense of the word. I personally figured out how to make positive change after years of not being able to do so!

Note: Actually, I thought he had lost more than 40 pounds.

*     *     *

Bill Taylor cordially invites you to visit these websites:

http://www.practicallyradical.com

http://blogs.hbr.org/taylor/

http://www.bnet.com/blog/innovator

http://www.fastcompany.com/


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

bobmorris