Fit to Compete: A book review by Bob Morris

Fit to Compete: Why Honest Conversations About Your Company’s Capabilities Are the Key to a Winning Strategy
Michael Beer
Harvard Business Review Press (January 2020)

How healthy are your organization’s vital signs?

Unless there is effective communication between and among those who comprise a workforce culture, their organization cannot institutionalize mutually beneficial cooperation, much less high-impact collaboration. Hence the importance of what Michael Beer characterizes as “honest conversations.” That is, conversations that enable an organization “to realign itself rapidly with ever-changing competitive demands.”

For example, as he explains, companies such as British Petroleum, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Nokia, and Toyota have grappled with huge strategic challenges because of their failure to reimagine their purpose, identity, strategy, business model, and structure. Transformation initiatives have missed the mark “not because the new strategy is flawed, but because the organizations can’t carry it out.” Their leaders failed to realize that, during the process of preparation and implementation, honest conversations “about their company’s capabilities are the key to a winning strategy.”

These are among the passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Beer’s coverage:

o Vince Forlenza (Pages 1-3, 85-115, and 234-235)
o Honest conversations (12-25, 30-31, 51-54, 154-155, 87-111, 170-171, and 213-219)
o Fitness to trust (15-16 and 117-150)
o Training (16-17, 160-161, and task force)
o Leadership of honest conversations (29-55)

o Santa Rosa Systems Division (47-48 and 62-63)
o Development of strategic direction by senior team (58-60)
o Becton Dickinson (85-115)
o Company Culture (109-111)
o Institutionalizing honest conversations (175-176, 178-183, and 188-198)

o Fit to perform (117-150)
o Overcoming complacency (173-198)
o Building capabilities (183-189)
o Corporate stewardship (201-221)
o Change leadership (224-227)

The Japanese term kaezen refers to continuous improvement, a never-ending process rather than a destination. The same can be said for “strategic fitness,” a concept suggested by Charles Darwin’s views on adaptation. He was among the first to perceive the underlying problem clearly (i.e. equating Adam Smith’s concept of “the invisible hand” to competition). One of his central insights was that natural selection favors traits and behaviors primarily according to their effect on individual organisms, not larger groups. Sometimes individual and group interests coincide, he recognized, and in such cases we often get invisible hand-like results.

Many organizations become hostage to what James O’Toole so apty characterizes as the “ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” I share Beer’s high regard for the Strategic Fitness Process (SFP). It involves honest conversations at all levels and in all areas between top management teams and employees who know why their organization is foundering. As he explains, SFP “is a safe, respectful, and powerful leadership platform that courageous leaders in many organizations have used to accelerate change.”

Beer has much of value to say about silent killers: “Like cholesterol in the human body, they clog organizational arteries…these barriers create the the organizational friction that impedes realignment and sustained improvement within organizations organizational friction.”

Here are six silent killers:

o Unclear strategy, unclear values, and conflicting priorities
o Ineffective senior team
o Leadership style: top-down or laissez-faire (hands off)
o Poor coordination across businesses, functions, or geographic regions
o Inadequate leadership development
o Inadequate verbal communication: both upward and downward

Here’s another I’ve noticed: silos disguised as managers

Michael Beer thoroughly examines “silent killers” in Chapter 4, explaining how a Strategic Fitness Process (SFP) can prevent or eliminate them. In my opinion, Fit to Compete is among the most important business books published in recent years. Bravo!

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