Conversations in Management: The Right Things

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

 Peter Drucker.

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Can you name a company that dominates its markets with high quality, stylish products that sell for a hefty premium over competitors? It’s Apple, of course (this wasn’t a trick question). The company sits on a mountain of cash, is insanely fashionable and apparently unstoppable. But before you sell the family farm to buy stock, you might recall that before there was an Apple, there was SONY.

Like Apple today, in times past SONY dominated markets, richly priced their products and enjoyed the adoration of fashionistas. It started in the 1957 when SONY released the first pocket-sized transistor radio. It was an immediate sensation and established SONY as a top brand. Innovation followed innovation. In 1968 they introduced the Trinitron TV. With three times the brightness of any other set, it was the one to own—if you could afford it. The Betamax came in 1975. A brilliantly engineered device, it could crisply record up to an hour of television programming. 1979 saw the Walkman’s launch. It was the first portable stereo cassette player and so dominated the market that “Walkman” became synonymous with any portable player. With its release in 1994, PlayStation quickly overtook rivals Nintendo and Sega. SONY’s high definition recording and playback media—Blue-Ray—debuted in 2006 and within two years put an end to rival HD-DVD. SONY represented cutting edge technology and engineering. It was the best and it was always beautiful. You almost didn’t mind paying more.

But while SONY was busy doing the right things and doing them well, they also missed opportunities. They stuck with cathode ray tube TV’s when others were moving to flat panels. Betamax failed because people wanted to be able to record movies as well as TV shows and VHS let them do it. Devastatingly, SONY was ready to introduce streaming music and an online store but corporate sluggishness kept them from executing. A less constrained Apple figured it out and overnight iPod supplanted Walkman as the device of choice. Blue-ray is a success, but it entered the market just as video streaming was emerging. Now it’s largely irrelevant. Today there’s not much left of SONY. Last year they spun off their television division and recently announced that the video and audio divisions will soon follow. The VAIO PC division was sold a year ago. Their in-house music streaming service was shuttered. All that’s left is SONY Entertainment, PlayStation (but without a viable mobile platform) and image sensors (ironically, largely sold to Apple).

So what happened? SONY never stopped trying to do the right things right. But they were so focused on doing what they were doing—and even doing it better—that they lost their creative edge. They disparaged potentially disruptive technologies that didn’t fit their model of “the right things.” It was an arrogance bred of success. The same thing goes on in our own organizations. We want to do the right things well. The problem is that sometimes what we think is the right thing is actually all wrong. But we forge on ahead anyway, blinded by the belief that past success is a guarantee of future success. It’s not. With every triumph ask yourself, “Is there a different way to do this?” Or, “Should I be doing this at all?” And then start thinking fearlessly and big.      —Ebert

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