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One of the things that’s often cited in the management literature vis-à- vis doing a good job is to have “constancy of purpose.” There is something to be said for being consistent on a mission, maintaining focus on the goal.

One of the things that’s often cited in the management literature vis-à- vis doing a good job is to have “constancy of purpose.” There is something to be said for being consistent on a mission, maintaining focus on the goal. But in real life, things can make “constancy of purpose” not only ineffective, but downright livelihood threatening. Two issues are related to this. First is that too often, people lose sight of the goal. “Constancy of purpose” becomes transformed into “constancy of process.” The doing of tasks meant to bring one toward the goal becomes paramount; the goal becomes an afterthought—at best. Consider a person who decides to jog. The purpose: to feel better and to become healthy. “Constancy of purpose” causes the person to run every day, come hell or high water (literally). Before long, a knee aches. A head cold develops. But on she runs. For this person, the “process” has eclipsed the “purpose.” Becoming healthy has given way to staying on the task. It happens all the time. The second thing that ought to raise a red flag regarding “constancy of purpose” but typically doesn’t is that there are mitigating factors that arise over time that need to be taken into account. For example, technical developments may occur that can change things tremendously. Consider a company of a few years back that decided to be the best typewriter firm or carburetor manufacturer. Things like PCs and fuel injectors can just change the game no matter how good the process is or how well designed the obsolete product.

A fascinating, valuable, and cautionary (perhaps the first two because of the last) book on this is Revival of the Fittest: Why Good Companies Go Bad and How Great Managers Remake Them by Donald N. Sull (Harvard Business School Press; $29.95). Sull explains, in a text that is extremely engaging (e.g., he writes, “The power of theory does not lie in describing reality in all its richness and complexity. That is the job of Russian novelists”—which is all the more amusing when you realize that Sull is an assistant prof at the Harvard Business School, the source of more than a few theories) that there is a problem with commitments that people enter into and have a difficult time extracting themselves from. Essentially, commitments define what a company is (Here’s what we do”) and how it does it (“These are our methods”). Assuming that there is a market and the company does what it does well, it may succeed. So the organization becomes committed. Sull writes: “Continuity of a company’s success formula can confer efficiency and focus that help a company compete in a stable environment. However, when the competitive context shifts, a company’s strengths can become weaknesses and its assets, liabilities.” His research shows that all to often, instead of adjusting those commitments, managers exhibit what he calls “active inertia, or management’s tendency to respond to the most disruptive changes by accelerating activities that succeeded in the past. When the world changes. . .they respond with more of what worked before.” Sull isn’t of the school that demands total, ruthless transfor-mation (he notes that a book titled “Corporate Change the Pol Pot Way would find few readers”), but he does show beyond doubt that managers need to be willing to select a new “anchor” (“an overarching objective that guides subsequent action”) and then to slowly but certainly work toward achieving it. Running faster or building a better typewriter won’t get it done. “Constancy” doesn’t mean “forever.”

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