BOOKS: IF ONLY YOU COULD BOTTLE IT - Every successful company has an overriding precept that gives it a real edge. Can this book identify it? Jeremy Bullmore reports

BOOKS: IF ONLY YOU COULD BOTTLE IT - Every successful company has an overriding precept that gives it a real edge. Can this book identify it? Jeremy Bullmore reports - The Big Idea, by Robert Jones. HarperCollins pounds 19.99.

by JEREMY BULLMORE, a non-executive director of WPP
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Big Idea, by Robert Jones. HarperCollins pounds 19.99.

Why are business books so long? This one isn't very long, but it's five times longer than it need be. It contains one perfectly respectable idea. It's not a new idea, it's not terribly well defined and it's poorly supported. Nonetheless, most chief executives would gain something from being reminded of the value of this idea. Robert Jones calls it 'The Big Idea'.

His central, remorselessly repeated thesis is this: successful organisations need a strongly held attitude to life that embraces but transcends commercial success. They must stand for something. They must adopt policies and principles, and make sure that these are understood by every form of stakeholder: employees, customers, investors. They must live by those principles, and their actions must be seen to be governed by them.

Because this is a business book, published at the start of a new millennium, there is the obligatory chapter on change, and it's presented as having universal application: 'There's an endemic impatience with the status quo, a feverish pursuit of the next big thing'; 'The whole idea of strategy is beginning to feel wrong'; 'It's a world that loves change and uncertainty.' And all the above is all the more so, of course, because of the internet.

The litany of change and turmoil has only one purpose: to set up the need for the big idea. It's an elusive concept, as Jones concedes, but this is his best attempt at definition: 'Big ideas can be about all sorts of things. But, in order to nourish life, they all have two dimensions in common. First, they are much more than just rational, logical, cerebral.

They have depth. They create a special and palpable spirit in the business.

They make an encounter with the organisation into a distinctive experience.

'Second, they appeal equally to people inside and outside the organisation: they're a social property, belonging to everyone and no-one.'

Yes, we think; that's probably true. Let's have some hard examples now, please ... Let's identify the world's admired companies and discover that the one thing they have in common is a big idea.

And this is where it gets difficult. At the back of the book, Jones catalogues '50 of the biggest ideas around at the moment'. Yes, we can nod at Virgin.

We surely pause a bit at Marks & Spencer. But Microsoft presents a challenge.

If such a vast and successful company can't be seen to own a big idea then much of the Jones thesis evaporates. But this is the best he can do: 'Microsoft: Ubiquity. Other aspects of big idea: empowering people - any time, any place on any device, where do you want to go today?'

Microsoft fails against most of Jones's own criteria. Its idea has no external resonance and in every respect lags far behind the fervour and passionate sense of community generated internally and externally by Apple.

And to label Disney's big idea as 'fun' or HSBC's as 'one bank for the world' does neither justice.

Jones is aware of the problem. He knows that 'big ideas are very hard to define; they're never adequately captured by a glib word or phrase'.

Indeed, he goes even further: 'The proof of a big idea is in what an organisation does, not what it says.'

But he never follows up this crucial thought - and that's what I missed most: a scrupulous analysis of corporate activities, big and small, that send out unambiguous signals about principles, beliefs and standards.

If I want to know what a company believes in, I'll certainly look at its annual report. But for evidence, I'll study its behaviour.

In fact, what Jones means by a big idea takes form most vividly when he reminds us of the enlightened Quakers who founded the great Cadbury and Rowntree companies, with their revolutionary attitude to industrial relations, their chapels, health plans and their purpose-built villages.

But presumably you can't lead businessmen into a new millennium by reminding them what a couple of Quakers were up to 140 years ago.

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