Fixing the Game: A book review by Bob Morris

Fixing the Game: Bubbles, Crashes, and What Capitalism Can Learn from the NFL
Roger L. Martin
Harvard Business Review Press (2011)

Why and how the core of business and capitalism must be restored

Many years ago, Oliver Wendell Holmes is reported to have observed, “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.”  I recalled that observation as I began to read Roger Martin’s latest book. With consummate skill, he enables an economics neophyte such as I to complete a journey that began in almost total ignorance and eventually reached a point at which a sound (albeit basic) understanding of key economic issues has been developed. The “game” to which the book’s title refers is an economic system that based on theories that assume that “focusing on shareholder value maximization using stock-based compensation” will give shareholders a better deal when, in fact, these theories “have the ability to destroy our economy and rot out the core of American capitalism.”

The repairs that are urgently needed (i.e. the “fixing” of that system), Martin asserts, require that the “expectations game” end, replaced by the re-establishment of a real market. Why? “The real market produces a positive-sum game for society. Everyone can be better off as more and more value is created for customers. In contrast, the expectations market produces a gigantic zero-sum game.” The real market also produces meani9ng and motivation for organizations and their leaders, cobtri9butes to a sense of authenticity for individuals, and in general, Martin submits, “a real market orientation creates individual and societal good, while the expectations orientation creates a downward spiral that threatens both individual well-being and the health of our economy.”

Martin provides a brief but remarkably insightful review of economic history that helps to create a frame of reference, a context, for his criticism of the focus on creating value for shareholders rather than for customers. It also helps to introduce the five action steps he proposes:

1. Shift companies’ focus back to the customer.
2. Restore authenticity to the lives of executives.
3. Address the deficiencies of board governance
4. Regulate and manage expectations players more effectively, ”most notably hedge funds. Net, hedge funds create no value for society.”
5. Finally, business executives “need to take on a more expansive and positive view of the role of for-profit companies in society.”

With characteristic precision and clarity, Martin explains (a) what must be done as well as what must not be done, (b) why changes must be made, and (c) how to proceed. His is a “bold vision” for companies and executives, to be sure, but he obviously agrees with Thomas Edison that “vision without execution is hallucination.” As indicated in all of his articles and books, Martin is a results-driven visionary. Consider these comments in the final chapter:

“There is a superior option, one that only a fraction of senior executives choose to embrace. It is to contribute to strengthening the civil foundation, going beyond the laws and regulations already in place and the norms and conventions already prevailing. This means venturing into the frontier of initiatives that have not yet been attempted but that hold the promise of making the world a better place. It means truly taking the lead on initiatives that mean more than profits.”

That brief excerpt helps to suggest the bold vision to which I referred earlier. Roger Martin is convinced that the core of business and capitalism can be restored but he is well-aware of all the perils that await those who aspire to achieve that worthy objective. Some of the rules of the “game” must be changed, others preserved, and all of them enforced. The competition must be located in a real market rather than one whose results are determined by expectations. Throughout the narrative, Martin cites lessons to be learned from the N.F.L., such as “keeping players from betting on the games they play” (i.e. executive compensation with stock-based incentives and rewards). At least some of what Roger Martin recommends can be accomplished by individuals but, as he fully understands, the institutional transformations needed can only be accomplished by a public-private coalition whose nature and extent would be unprecedented.

 


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