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Stevenson Book

      A Business Forum Book Review:

Do Lunch or Be Lunch:
The Power of Predictability
in Creating Your Future

by Howard H. Stevenson with Jeffrey L. Cruikshank

          Long before the dawn of history, our ancestors lived in an environment of high risk and uncertainty. A rustling in the brush could announce the approach of a covey of game birds or a saber-toothed tiger. Swift and accurate prediction of the nature and significance of this phenomenon and the taking of appropriate action were the keys to survival. "Kill the game bird, run away from the tiger. Eat, or get eaten."

          In today’s fiercely competitive mercantile environment, mastery of these survival skills is essential. The realistic prediction of threats and opportunities and the taking of deliberate action are critical competencies. "Move in for the kill" or "Flee," but "Don’t just stand there."

          Do Lunch or Be Lunch: The Power of Predictability in Creating Your Future by Howard H. Stevenson with Jeffrey L. Cruikshank (Harvard Business School Press, 272 pages, $24.95) addresses the challenge of prediction in a world that now appears to be economically turbulent and unpredictable. In fact, today’s common wisdom is that the world is now less predictable than it has been at any time in the past. Howard Stevenson, currently on his third tour of duty as a professor at the Harvard Business School leading its Entrepreneurial Management Unit, illuminates the two visages of predictability -- action and avoidance.

          Making the future happen leapfrogs the dilemmas of predicting the future. Effective entrepreneurs can envision future potentialities, and then act with determination to bring this future to fruition. Prediction is active, not passive. "Taking effective action means playing to your strengths. It means picking, practicing, specializing in, and playing your own game. Part of this is knowing the overall odds for and against breaking into the game you’re interested in ... As a long time student of entrepreneurship, I have come to the conclusion that most successful entrepreneurs are people who deal effectively with the future. They are people who push a new product into an established market or find a new market for an established product -- but they almost never try to do both at once. In other words, they limit the degree of unpredictability in their ventures. In fact, they succeed only when they’re able to make customers, suppliers, employees, and financiers share their vision of the future and the path to get there."

          Bill Gates and the Microsoft Corporation are a dramatic example of accurately predicting the future by making this future. An exciting work-in-process is now the evolution of WorldCom Inc. -- an obscure Jackson, Mississippi telephone company -- into the global colossus of the Internet. Through an astonishing series of 50 strategic acquisitions in a decade including MFS Communications with UUNet Technologies Inc., WorldCom emerged as the winner in the divestiture by H&R Block Inc. of the CompuServe Corporation’s high-speed networking division. WorldCom then stunned the world with its audacious $30.0 billion takeover offer for the MCI Communications Corporation, shattering MCI’s previously announced "done deal" for a merger with British Telecommunications PLC; this becomes the biggest corporate alliance in history. With perception and prowess, Bernard Ebbers, President and Chief Executive Officer of WorldCom, and his colleagues are predicting the future by making this future.

          The obverse visage of predictability is avoidance. Confronted by a saber-toothed tiger, our ancestors who survived fled. The rational entrepreneur will avoid insofar as possible all situations that are inherently unpredictable. The professional gambler is not a risk-taker; he/she understands the odds and only acts in those situations where the odds assure a clearly favorable outcome. Our surviving ancestors learned to simply avoid the brush inhabited by the saber-toothed tiger. We should utterly flee from those situations where our determined actions cannot overcome unpredictability.

          Avoidance of unpredictability applies to relationships as well as situations. "In a complicated society, where mutual cooperation is critical to simple functioning, it’s important to be as unsurprising as possible." In the modern-day tribe, security is to be found in the predictability of our colleagues, suppliers, customers and employees -- even our competitors. Similarly, to achieve effective collaboration and strategic execution, all of our stake-holders look to us for predictability. In fact, this insightful work concludes with the question:

          "Am I making life more or less predictable for those who must depend on me, and on whom I must depend?"

          Professor Stevenson argues "... that managers and organizations enhance their effectiveness by being more predictable ..." and strives " ... to make the case that individuals who manage people have a special obligation to act honestly, humanely, and effectively -- and that, most often, this translates into acting predictably toward those with whom they deal." For the owner/manager of the smaller enterprise as well as the Fortune 500® Corporation, these are wise words in a time when the world is reported to be awash in turbulence and uncertainty.

Your comments and suggestions for these pages are most welcomed!

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