How to Reverse-Engineer Criticism

Maurice Ewing

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Maurice Ewing for the Harvard Business Review blog’s “Conversation” series. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.

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Good companies always strive to be better and a potentially useful way to catalyze such improvement is to consider how analyst and public criticism might be used to institute corporate change. By parallel, managers themselves might similarly benefit from “reverse-engineering” the criticism of not only outsiders but of their own colleagues: considering both parties as their benefactors on the road to greater performance. In both cases, however, constructive use of criticism only requires a dose of humility and an honest desire to make things better.

One such company that could be made better is Walmart: a fundamentally good (if not great) company that has long-suffered from substantial criticism by both analysts and outsiders related to everything from its employment and sourcing practices to its low-pricing policies. Walmart’s principal problems appear to be largely reputation-related: a phenomenon that has cost the company millions in wasted PR consulting fees and possibly billions in lost, potential market capitalization over the last decade. Indeed, a 2006 campaign by the company’s PR firm only made matters worse until Lee Scott, the previous CEO, temporarily turned things around.

However, more recent actions in the long-standing gender discrimination case against the company (i.e., Walmart v. Dukes) have resurrected its reputation problems in the eyes of analysts while its controversial market expansions both domestically and overseas have even led to protests. Indeed, (besides Toyota and BP) if there is any major business out there in need of reverse-engineering the work of its critics so as to restore itself on the path to greatness, it is Walmart.

[Ewing then 0ffers what he characterizes as a “shortlist of measures” Walmart managers might undertake to begin accomplishing this feat.” To read the complete article, please click here.]

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Formerly on the finance faculty of the Kellogg-HKUST business school, Maurice Ewing runs RiskKnowledge, which has helped companies forensically improve their management and enterprise risk management frameworks in more than 40 countries and 30 emerging markets. You can follow him on Twitter @mauriceewing.



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