Re-Think: A book review by Bob Morris

Re-Think: A Business Manifesto for Cutting Costs and Boosting Innovation
Ric Merrifield
Financial Times Press/The Pearson Group (2009)

If you cannot identify the “what” that is truly valuable, “how” is irrelevant.

As I began to read this book, I was immediately reminded of an observation that Peter Drucker shares in an article published in the Harvard Business Review in 1963: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” In this volume, Ric Merrifield urges his reader to identify her or his company’s essential business activities (i.e. the most important “whats”) and record them on a map, “the third piece of the puzzle” after Web 2.0 and service-oriented architecture (SOA). The objective is to “cut through the proprietary languages that are so pervasive at many companies…and [thereby] fully unlock the potential of SOA and the Internet.” Merrifield asserts that a company’s “whats” comprise 80% of its outcomes, no matter the industry. “And when you see them laid out in their logical sequence, you can determine the organizational value of each `what’.”

Merrifield claims to offer what he characterizes as a “revolutionary new operations design technique” that consists of five sequential steps:

1. Identify the “whats” that are truly valuable and determine the contribution(s) each makes to your company’s progress. “The Greatest value often comes from an unexpected quarter.”

2. Know what you are (and are not) good at. How well do the previously identified “whats” perform? In Chapter 4, Merrifield offers some useful and easily applied approaches to measure performance.

3. Make (and break) connections. Pause and determine how the “whats” relate to each other. “Otherwise, you might jettison a nonperformer only to set off a destructive chain reaction among its high-performing but dependent neighbors.”

4. Understand what can (and cannot) be predicted. That is, “you need to figure out how your company and its customers, suppliers, and partners are likely to react to the plug-and-play changes you have in mind.”

5. Unravel (and follow) the rules. In Chapter 7, “you learn how to align your key `whats’ with the complex maze of federal, state, and even foreign regulations.”

Merrrifield then provides (in Chapters 8-10) three “full-scale portraits of plug-and-play management” in the ING DIRECT, Eclipse, and Cranium organizations. In Chapter 11, he argues that “winning companies know how to rethink and reconfigure their `whats’ to adapt to the unending changes of the marketplace.” Then in his concluding chapter, “Key Concepts,” Merrifield offers a useful quick reference to the basic ideas in his book to help his reader in her or his own “rethinking journey.”

Of special value to me are the sets of questions that Merrifield poses. Indeed, one of the great values of this book is the quality of the questions asked rather than of the answers provided. The “rethinking journey” is one of consistently rigorously challenging any and all assumptions, premises, and so-called “conventional wisdom” about how to reduce costs while increasing innovation, about how to get more done in less time with fewer resources, and meanwhile, in process, about how to establish and then sustain a culture of creative and productive confrontation in which dissent, candor, and intellectual integrity are not only encouraged and rewarded but, indeed, required.

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