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THE LIVING COMPANY: Habits for survival in a turbulent business environment


The Lifespan of a Company

In the world of institutions, commercial corporations are newcomers. Their history comprises only 500 years of activity in the Western world, a tiny fraction of the time span of human civilization. In that time, as producers of material wealth, they have had immense success. They have been the major vehicle for sustaining the exploding world population with goods and services that make civilized life possible. In the years ahead, as developing countries expand their standards of living, corporations will be more needed than ever.

Yet, if you look at them in the light of their potential, most commercial corporations are dramatic failures-or, at best, underachievers. They exist at a primitive stage of evolution; they develop and exploit only a fraction of their potential. For proof, you need only consider their high mortality rate. The average life expectancy of a multinational corporation-Fortune 500 or its equivalent-is between 40 and 50 years. This figure is based on most surveys of corporate births and deaths. A full one-third of the companies listed in the 1970 Fortune 500, for instance, had vanished by 1983-acquired, merged, or broken to pieces.1 Human beings have learned to survive, on aver-age, for 75 years or more, but there are very few companies that are that old and flourishing.

There are a few. The Stora company, for example, is a major pa-per, pulp, and chemical manufacturer; it has had the character of a publicly owned company from its very early beginnings, more than 700 years ago, as a copper mine in central Sweden. The Sumitomo Group has its origins in a copper casting shop founded by Riemon Soga in the year 1590. Examples like these are enough to suggest that the natural average lifespan of a corporation should be as long as two or three centuries.

I didn't see these astonishing statistics until I had already spent more than two decades as a professional manager. It took another decade for their implications to fully sink in. I worked all my life for a major Anglo-Dutch multinational, the Royal Dutch/Shell Group of companies. Born and educated in Holland, I went to work for Shell directly out of college. I held jobs ranging from accountant to group planning coordinator (coordinator is the group's equivalent of a senior vice president), working on three continents and in Shell operating companies whose businesses ranged from refining to marketing to exploration and from oil to chemicals to metals. As it happens, I am a second-generation Shell man, because my father worked for the same company. During our two generations, he and I clocked 64 working years. So it cannot be a great surprise that, for a long time, I took it for granted that most companies (including Royal Dutch/Shell) simply could not die. They would naturally exist forever.

Well, they don't. Even the big, solid companies, the pillars of the society we live in, seem to hold out for not much longer than an aver-age of 40 years. And that 40-year figure, short though it seems, represents the life expectancy of companies of a considerable size. These companies have already survived their first 10 years, a period of high corporate "infant mortality." In some countries, 40 percent of all newly created companies last less than 10 years. A recent study by Ellen de Rooij of the Stratix Group in Amsterdam indicates that the average life expectancy of all firms, regardless of size, measured in Japan and much of Europe, is only 12.5 years.2 I know of no reason to believe that the situation in the United States is materially better.

The implications of these statistics are depressing. Between the centuries of age of a Stora or a Sumitomo and the average lifespan-whether 12.5 or 40 years-there exists a gap which represents the wasted potential in otherwise-successful companies. The damage is notmerely a matter of shifts in the Fortune 500 roster; work lives, communities, and economies are all affected, even devastated, by premature corporate deaths. Moreover, there is something unnatural in the high corporate mortality rate; no living species, for instance, endures such a large gap between its maximum life expectancy and its average realization. Moreover, few other types of institutions-churches, armies, or universities-seem to have the abysmal demographics of the corporate life form.

Why, then, do so many companies die prematurely? There are many speculations about the reason, and this area undoubtedly needs much more research. However, there is accumulating evidence that corporations fail because the prevailing thinking and language of management are too narrowly based on the prevailing thinking and language of economics. To put it another way: Companies die because their managers focus on the economic activity of producing goods and services, and they forget that their organizations' true nature is that of a community of humans. The legal establishment, business educators, and the financial community all join them in this mistake.

Some Companies Last Hundreds of Years

These understandings stemmed from a surprising study which we con-ducted in 1983, when I was coordinator of planning for the Royal Dutch/Shell Group. Royal Dutch/Shell, based in Britain and the Nether-lands, is one of the top three corporations in the world in size-composed internally of more than 300 companies in more than 100 countries around the world. All of these companies are co-owned by an interlinked pair of holding companies, one Dutch and one British. The history of the Shell Group dates back to the 1890s. Its British founders began as sellers of oil for the lamps of the Far East (Shell was named after the fact that seashells were used as money in the Far East), while the Dutch founders imported kerosene from Sumatra. From the moment they merged, in 1906, Shell's primary business was the worldwide production and marketing of oil and petroleum.

That was true at least until the 1970s. Then, feeling the pressure of the energy crisis, Shell's managers (along with managers of other oil companies and firms in other industries) were swept up in the trend of diversification. We entered into metals, nuclear power, and other businesses that were new to us, with varying degrees of success. By the early 1980s, serious doubts had surfaced in the Shell Group about the wisdom of this diversification. Yet we weren't sure we could survive with our core oil and petroleum business alone. Reserves of reasonably accessible oil were projected to last three or four decades before they would be exhausted. Shell executives cannot avoid discussing the question:
Is there life after oil? What other businesses might Shell reason-ably enter? How might we prepare for switching to them as our primary business? And what effect would that switch have on our company as a whole?

In the early 1980s, the planners in my department conducted some research to see what other companies were doing with their business portfolios. But Lo van Wachem, then chairman of the Committee of Managing Directors (the most senior board of Royal Dutch/Shell managers) pointed out that the companies we had studied were nowhere near the size of the Shell Group. Size, when you get to the level of turn-ing over $100 billion per year, presents its own unique problems. The examples were also too recent. Other companies' diversification moves had not yet stood the test of time. Some of Shell's diversification moves, like the opening of the chemicals business, were already at least 30 years old, and we still didn't have consensus within the company about their value.

Van Wachem would be more interested, he added, if the planners could show him some examples of large companies that were older than Shell and relatively as important in their industry. Most importantly, he wanted to know about companies that, during their history, had successfully weathered some fundamental change in the world around them-such that they still existed today with their corporate identity intact.

That was an interesting question. Looking for companies older than Shell would mean going back to the final quarter of the nineteenth century-or earlier, into the first years of the Industrial Revolution. Tens of thousands of companies had existed in those days, in every corner of the world. But which ones were still alive today with their corporate identity intact?

Some companies exist only as a name, a brand, an office building, or a memory: remnants of a glorious past. But after some research and reflection, we began building up a list of companies that met van Wachem's criteria. In North America, there were DuPont, the Hudson Bay Company, W. R. Grace, and Kodak-all older than Shell. A handful of Japanese companies traced their origins to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and were still thriving. They included Mitsui, Sumitomo, and the department store Daimaru. Mitsubishi and Suzuki were younger; they traced their origins merely to the nineteenth century, having emerged from the business opportunities that opened up around the Meiji Restoration (1868). During that period of fundamental change in Japan, sparked by Admiral Perry's first visit of 1853, some ancient Japanese companies had gotten into serious difficulties; but Mitsui, Sumitomo, and Daimaru had survived with their corporate identities intact.

In present-day Europe, a sizable number of firms were 200 or more years old. In fact, there were so many such firms in the United Kingdom that they had their own trade association, the Tercentenarians Club, which only accepts member companies over 300 years old. How-ever, most of these were family firms that did not meet our size requirements; many of them still under the control of the founding family dynasty.

We commissioned the study, written by two Shell planners and two outside business school professors, to examine the question of corporate longevity. From the very first moment, we were startled by the small number of companies that met van Wachem's criteria of being large and older than Shell. In the end, we found only 40 corporations, of which we studied 27 in detail, relying on published case histories and academic reports. We wanted to find out whether these companies had something in common that could explain why they were such successful survivors.

After all of our detective work, we found four key factors in common:

1. Long-lived companies were sensitive to their environment. Whether they had built their fortunes on knowledge (such as DuPont's technological innovations) or on natural resources (such as the Hudson Bay Company's access to the furs of Canadian forests), they remained in harmony with the world around them. As wars, depressions, technologies, and political changes surged and ebbed around them, they always seemed to excel at keeping their feelers out, tuned to what-ever was going on around them. They did this, it seemed, de-spite the fact that in the past there were little data available, let alone the communications facilities to give them a global view of the business environment. They sometimes had to rely for information on packets carried over vast distances by portage and ship. Moreover, societal considerations were rarely given prominence in the deliberations of company boards. Yet they managed to react in timely fashion to the conditions of society around them.

2. Long-lived companies were cohesive, with a strong sense of identity. No matter how widely diversified they were, their employees (and even their suppliers, at times) felt they were all part of one entity. One company, Unilever, saw itself as a fleet of ships, each ship independent, yet the whole fleet stronger than the sum of its parts. This sense of belonging to an organization and being able to identify with its achievements can easily be dismissed as a "soft" or abstract feature of change. But case histories repeatedly showed that strong employee links were essential for survival amid change. This cohesion around the idea of "community" meant that managers were typically chosen for advancement from within; they succeeded through the generational flow of members and considered themselves stewards of the longstanding enterprise. Each management generation was only a link in a long chain. Except during conditions of crisis, the management's top priority and concern was the health of the institution as a whole.

3. Long-lived companies were tolerant. At first, when we wrote our Shell report, we called this point "decentralization." Long-lived companies, as we pointed out, generally avoided exercising any centralized control over attempts to diversify the company. Later, when I considered our research again, I realized that seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century managers would never have used the word decentralized; it was a twentieth-century invention. In what terms, then, would they have thought about their own company policies? As I studied the histories, I kept returning to the idea of "tolerance." These companies were particularly tolerant of activities on the margin: outliers, experiments, and eccentricities within the boundaries of the cohesive firm, which kept stretching their understanding of possibilities.

4. Long-lived companies were conservative in financing. They were frugal and did not risk their capital gratuitously. They understood the meaning of money in an old-fashioned way; they knew the usefulness of having spare cash in the kitty. Having money in hand gave them flexibility and independence of action. They could pursue options that their competitors could not. They could grasp opportunities without first having to convince third-party financiers of their attractiveness.

It did not take us long to notice the factors that did not appear on the list. The ability to return investment to shareholders seemed to have nothing to do with longevity. The profitability of a company was a symptom of corporate health, but not a predictor or determinant of corporate health. Certainly, a manager in a long-lived company needed all the accounting figures that he or she could lay hands on. But those companies seemed to recognize that figures, even when accurate, de-scribe the past. They do not indicate the underlying conditions that will lead to deteriorating health in the future. The financial reports at General Motors, Philips Electronics, and IBM during the mid-1970s gave no clue of the trouble that lay in store for those companies within a decade. Once the problems cropped up on the balance sheet, it was too late to prevent the trouble.

Nor did longevity seem to have anything to do with a company's material assets, its particular industry or product line, or its country of origin. Indeed, the 40- to 50-year life expectancy seems to be equally valid in countries as wide apart as the United States, Europe, and Japan, and in industries ranging from manufacturing to retailing to financial services to agriculture to energy.

At the time, we chose not to make the Shell study available to the general public, and it still remains unpublished today. The reasons had to do with the lack of scientific reliability for our conclusions. Our sample of 30 companies was too small. Our documentation was not always complete. And, as the management thinker Russell Ackoff once pointed out to me, our four key factors represented a statistical correlation; our results should therefore be treated with suspicion. Finally, as the authors of the study noted in their introduction, "Analysis, so far completed, raises considerable doubts about whether it is realistic to expect business history to give much guidance for business futures, given the extent of business environmental changes which have occurred during the present century."3

Nonetheless, our conclusions have recently received corroboration from a source with a great deal of academic respectability. Between 1988 and 1994, Stanford University professors James Collins and Jerry Porras asked 700 chief executives of U.S. companies-large and small, private and public, industrial and service-to name the firms they most admired. From the responses, they culled a list of 18 "visionary" companies. They didn't set out to find long-lived companies, but, as it happened, most of the firms that the CEOs chose had existed for 60 years or longer. (The only exceptions were Sony and Wal-Mart.) Collins and Porras paired these companies up with key competitors (Ford with General Motors, Procter & Gamble with Colgate, Motorola with Zenith) and began to look at the differences. The visionary companies put a lower priority on maximizing shareholder wealth or profits. Just as we had discovered, Collins and Porras found that their most-admired companies combined sensitivity to their environment with a strong sense of identity: "Visionary companies display a powerful drive for progress that enables them to change and adapt without compromising their cherished core ideals."4

At Shell, we never conducted any study of similar diligence. Nonetheless, the Shell study remained uppermost in my mind for years. In our unscientific way, we had found four characteristics that seemed, when put together, to give us a description of a highly successful type of company-a company that could survive for very long periods in an ever-changing world, because its managers were good at the management of change.

Defining the Living Company

Over time, the same four factors that we developed in our study of long-lived companies at Shell have continued to resonate in my mind. Gradually, they began to change my thinking about the real nature of companies-and of what it means for the way that we, managers at all levels, run those companies. I now see these four components this way:

1. Sensitivity to the environment represents a company's ability to learn and adapt.

2. Cohesion and identity, it is now clear, are aspects of a company's innate ability to build a community and a persona for itself.

3. Tolerance and its corollary, decentralization, are both symptoms of a company's awareness of ecology: its ability to build constructive relationships with other entities, within and out-side itself.

4. And I now think of conservative financing as one element in a very critical corporate attribute: the ability to govern its own growth and evolution effectively.

Moreover, the question remains: Why would these same characteristics occur again and again in companies that had managed to out-live others?

In a sense, I have been intrigued by these issues all of my working life, beginning with my time at university. I am convinced that the four characteristics of a long-lived company are not answers. They represent the start of a fundamental inquiry about the nature and success of commercial organizations and their role in the human community.

Not coincidentally, these four basic components have also provided the framework for this book. Put together, they give clues to the real nature of companies, and they form a set of organizing principles of managerial behavior-critical aspects of the work of any manager who wants his or her company to survive and thrive for the long term.

The Shell study also reinforced a concept I have developed since my student days: to consider and talk about a company as a living entity. In this, I do not stand alone. Many people naturally think and speak about a company as if they were speaking about an organic, living creature with a mind and character of its own. This common use of the language is not surprising. All companies exhibit the behavior and certain characteristics of living entities. All companies learn. All companies, whether explicitly or not, have an identity that determines their coherence. All companies build relationships with other entities, and all companies grow and develop until they die. To manage a "living company" is to manage with more or less consistent, more or less explicit appreciation for these facts of corporate life, instead of ignoring them.

It probably doesn't matter very much whether a company is actually alive in a strict biological sense, or whether "the living company" is simply a useful metaphor. As we will see throughout this book, to regard a company as a living entity is a first step toward increasing its life expectancy. This book is about the idea of the living company, its philosophical underpinnings, its application in practice, and the power and capability that seem to come from adopting it.

For the idea of a living company isn't just a semantic or academic issue. It has enormous practical, day-to-day implications for managers. It means that, in a world that changes massively, many times, during the course of your career, you need to involve people in the continued development of the company. The amount that people care, trust, and engage themselves at work has not only a direct effect on the bottom line, but the most direct effect, of any factor, on your company's expected lifespan. The fact that many managers ignore this imperative is one of the great tragedies of our times.

What, then, does managing a living company mean on a day-to-day basis? The path to the answer starts with another question, the question of corporate purpose: What are corporations for?

Financial analysts, shareholders, and many executives tell us that corporations exist primarily to provide a financial return. Some economists offer a somewhat broader sense of purpose. Companies, they say, exist to provide products and services, and therefore to make human life more comfortable and desirable. "Customer orientation" and other management fashions have translated this imperative into the idea that corporations exist to serve customers. Politicians, meanwhile, seem to believe that corporations exist to provide for the public good: to create jobs and ensure a stable economic platform for all the "stake-holders" of society.

But, from the point of view of the organization itself-the point of view that allows organizations to survive and thrive-all of these purposes are secondary.

Like all organisms, the living company exists primarily for its own survival and improvement: to fulfill its potential and to become as great as it can be. It does not exist solely to provide customers with goods, or to return investment to shareholders, any more than you, the reader, exist solely for the sake of your job or your career. After all, you, too, are a living entity. You exist to survive and thrive; working at your job is a means to that end. Similarly, returning investment to shareholders and serving customers are means to a similar end for IBM, Royal Dutch/Shell, Exxon, Procter & Gamble, General Motors, and every other company.

If the real purpose of a living company is to survive and thrive in the long run, then the priorities in managing such a company are very different from the values set forth in most of the modern academic business literature. Such a purpose also contradicts the views held by many managers and shareholders. To be sure, many management fashions resonate with the idea of a learning company-for example, the concepts of the "learning organization" and "knowledge as a strategic as-set." But there are serious doubts that even the most enthusiastic managers and shareholders have fully explored the ramifications of these concepts.

The result: in today's increasingly volatile business environment, without the priorities of the living company, most managers will find that their companies do not have the habits to accomplish what they hope to achieve. On the other hand, exploring the ramifications of managing an entity that is alive, with the intent of handing it over to one's successors in better health than when one received it, is deeply gratifying. The owners of the firms in London's Tercentenarian Club and the managers of the Shell study survivors are usually exponents of a deeply felt corporate pride.

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