Built to last or built to rock?


In a comment on my last post, game designer/indie film producer/screenwriter/record producer/blues musician/earliest childhood friend Ken Melville made a fascinating and noteworthy observation:

    Groups/corporations have a productivity and creative energy curve that flatlines after a while. You can’t maintain the magic forever. It’s just not new anymore. The excitement is diminished. The market is flooded with your genius products, and there are copycats and natural plateaus. Apple is there. Google is there. Facebook is there. The Beach Boys got there. The Beatles got there.

It's TBD whether Apple, Google, and Facebook have hit their apex, but we do know that no company dominates its field forever. As Richard Foster and Sarah Kaplan point out in their book Creative Destruction: Why Companies That Are Built to Last Underperform the Market—And How to Successfully Transform Them: “El Dorado, the golden company that continually performs better than the markets has never existed. It is a myth.” Some organizations manage to hang on awhile (like those 1300-year-old Japanese hotels), but that's not the same as ruling the market and maintaining the magic.

This raises a key question: should a company try to survive at all costs? More fundamentally, should an organization even be “built to last”? Is that what’s most important?

It seems to me that a business needs a larger purpose than merely existing. It needs to make a difference. It needs to produce value that nobody else does. And if it’s not doing that, why should it last? Why take up space? To quote management guru Tom Peters, a company shouldn’t be built to last, it should be "built to rock the world."

That brings us to Melville’s examples, The Beach Boys and The Beatles, which offer very different solutions.

The Beach Boys decided to keep going no matter what, vainly attempting to recapture the magic of their 1962-1967 period. They scored one more big hit, “Kokomo,” in 1988, but they were a ghost of their former self—minus creative spark plug Brian Wilson—performing endless oldies' tours and recycling past hits.

The Beatles, on the other hand, quit at the top of their game. They weren’t content with a slow fade. In fact, they went out in a blaze—not of glory, but from an explosion of intra-band litigation. Not pretty, but powerful. And befitting the passion of a great band. Creative destruction indeed.

For an earlier post on this topic, check here.

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  1. I try to wake up every morning and ask myself "Is what I'm doing still valuable?"

    Most days the answer is yes. Sometimes it's no. I pretend that if I say no first, I can build a new yes before others start saying now.

  2. google has plateaued and teens aren't interested in fb anymore.

    i wonder if those hotels had a 1300 year plan.

  3. I wouldn’t bet against Larry Page & Sergey Brin. But if Google HAS peaked, they have a legacy to be proud of. Who cares if they endure for years? Their famous “disregard for the impossible” has already changed the world. Same with Apple.

    Yeah, the Hoshi Ryokan spa/hotel and a few others of the Nara period (8th century) in Japan are still around. (Maybe it's due to snappy logos and great ads?) 1300-year-old hotels are fine with me as long as they've cleaned the rooms and changed the sheets over the years. Hopefully they've had some personnel turnover since the beginning. If not, that might creep me out.

  4. I think in 1300 years Facebook will be selling human brains to make a buck, they are smarmy, I would hope that most musical bands don't aspire to be such life-sucking entities. But that's just me I'm sure.

  5. Don't know about FB, tho I realize that kids are tuning them out now. Apple is an interesting story. Lots of shareholder dissatisfaction—and a concern that they're losing out to Samsung. Then there's the money being wasted on the construction of their new multi-billion-dollar doughnut-shaped headquarters in Cupertino (a profligacy that usually portends—in the Valley and elsewhere—that a company has lost its edge). But Apple's obit, methinks, is premature.

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