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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Billion Dollar Blunders

Libraries are great places. Lots of useful information, for a really reasonable price. In the last six months, as I began watching my business "pennies", I've replaced the bookstore with the library, and discovered several gems on the shelves.

Billion Dollar Lessons by Paul B. Carroll and Chunka Mui is one of these greats. The overline title is: "What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years".

The book's thesis is that much attention is focused on success stories -- sometimes myths --- and little study has been done on why big businesses flop, crash, and burn.

The stories the authors tell are however also truly relevant to smaller organizations because all businesses ultimately fall under the same fundamental constraints, passions, and weaknesses.

So why do businesses fail?

Many disasters occur, the authors suggest, because of blind take-over and acquisition strategies, or the ignorance of major trends and shifts right under the business leaders' noses. Add to the mix a load of ego and group-think, and you have recipes for disaster like the AOL-Time Warner Merger, the decline and/or collapse of Kodak and Polaroid, and the flame-out of WebVan (an ill-fated Internet grocery delivery service born during the Internet boom.)

And of course there is FedEx's disastrous ZipMail, trying to combine faxing and courier service, and Motorola's Iridium, perhaps the highest flying (or rocketing) waste of funds when just a little common sense would have told the market for direct satellite phone service from utterly remote regions is, well, small.

Even smaller businesses (yours truly, included) have fallen into some of these traps:
  1. Illusions of Synergy
  2. Faulty Financial Engineering
  3. Deflated Roll ups
  4. Staying the (Misguided) Course
  5. Misjudged Adjacencies
  6. fumbling Technologies
  7. Consolidation Blues
The writers suggest caution, real due diligence, and fearless verification of ideas is one way to avoid walking into disasters, without stifling innovation or the times when you need to face the music and realize the old game is up.

(You can buy this useful book from -- they will pay me a small commission -- or visit your local public library.)

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