Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Wrong Reinvention at the Wrong Time

Josh Linkner, The Road to Reinvention: How to Drive Disruption and Accelerate Transformation

I had a grim feeling about this book when, at the end of his introduction, Linkner wrote: “It’s time to architect your own future.” From the philosophical to the economic to the grammatical, so much is wrong with that line, I can’t even encompass it. Yet because Linkner reuses this ungrammatical cliché, and others similarly vacuous, this quote became emblematic of this entire book. And reading it, frankly, hurt.

Linkner’s litany of bromides, jargon, and cherry-picked anecdotes might make sense in an absolute vacuum. If you’ve never read anything else about business and economics, Linkner sounds persuasive. But I have read, and Linkner doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Start with this: Linkner does everything short of directly quoting Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor who pioneered Disruptive Innovation theory, without ever citing him. Linkner’s best ideas are pirated.

Historian Jill Lepore, of Harvard and The New Yorker, writes that Disruptive Innovation, despite moddish popularity, has little backing evidence unless observers meticulously screen their evidence. It’s also proven functionally worthless for economic predictions: in my favorite moment from Lepore, Christensen in 2005 predicts the iPhone will crater because it doesn’t meet any measurable need. Linkner suffers similar field blindness so often, listing examples risks descending into parody.

Consider: Linkner asserts that Kmart lost its commercial relevance by inertia, descending into bankruptcy in 2002. That’s true. But by Linkner’s own standards, what happened in 2002 doesn’t matter in 2014. Corporate restructuring, strategic fat-trimming, a mutually beneficial merger with Sears, and several racy new TV ads have returned Kmart to prominence, and revenues, it hasn’t seen since Reagan’s first term. Linkner’s castigations are outdated, making him seem oblivious.

Similarly, Linkner blames Borders Books & Music’s collapse on a failure to keep abreast of cultural trends. But Naomi Klein wrote in 1999 that Borders was already systemically underpaying workers, building outlets faster than revenue growth, and edging into marginal markets, all in an attempt to outpace their biggest competitor, Barnes & Noble. Well, BN won that horserace. Linkner’s analysis would only make sense if Borders was America’s only book superstore chain.

Dedicated readers will notice that I selected these examples from Linkner’s early pages. Simply put, I stopped taking notes. Linkner says so much, so wrong, so often, that memorializing it started to feel mean. Believe me, I could’ve gotten much, much more brutal. But this is a book review, not a scholarly paper; two examples will suffice.

Linkner’s press agent pitched me this book partly through Linkner’s involvement with efforts to revitalize his native Detroit. Periodically, Linkner mentions ways Detroit, once considered America’s most failed city, is currently revitalizing itself. One wonders if Linkner reads newspapers. Detroit, which grew rapidly on expectations of money that never materialized, has been immune to economic boom cycles for about three decades, and is currently bleeding about ten-thousand residents per year.

Where, then, is this “reinvention”? Certainly not in the auto industry, which Linkner diplomatically mentions as infrequently as possible. Henry Ford’s assembly line was a workers’ nightmare that required record high wages to forestall massive walkouts (cf. Matthew B. Crawford). And most of the “disruptive reinventions” Linkner cites began after Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy filing, too recently to draw meaningful longitudinal conclusions. As flaccid examples accumulate, the pattern feels painfully self-serving.

Throughout, Linkner repeats the word “reinvention” with onanistic fixation, until it becomes banal. Reinvention, in Linkner’s world, becomes something you do constantly, regardless of market circumstances or economic limitations. It became painful to read, because in reality, you cannot constantly reinvent yourself. Eventually you must assume your mature structural role, and eventually die. Constant, internally motivated change, without regard for environmental constraints, is the operant philosophy of cancer cells.

Linkner describes himself as a serial capitalist. He recounts founding multiple companies, building their market strength, then selling them and reinvesting the proceeds in further start-ups. Now a venture capitalist, he subsidizes others who do likewise. Nice work if you can get it. But because only massively capitalized mega-corporations can purchase already extant companies outright, this makes Linkner culpable in today’s concentrated wealth and narrow market efficiency. One Percent ho!

Perhaps you’ve noticed my reuse of descriptors like “painful” and “hurt.” Linkner wants to pierce your preconceptions and lay bare your aching mistakes. But that’s not the pain I felt. Between his make-do grammar, flimsy arguments, and recycled thesis, Linkner enflamed this ex-English teacher’s longstanding sore points. I didn’t so much want to review this book as grade it. I’ve seen freshmen put more thought and research into their work.

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