Review – Repeatability (#strategy, #business, @HarvardBiz)

Repeatability: Build Enduring Businesses for a World of Constant Change

by Chris Zook, James Allen, published 2012

What’s this book about?

I finished reading this book over three weeks ago. Since then, I have struggled to get myself to sit down and write a review. The primary reason I’ve struggled is because I am not sure I can say with confidence what this book is about, or to which genre it belongs. Is it about strategy? Business management? Business planning? Organizational theory? Something else?

“Repeatability” chants about simplicity, but it’s full of so many buzzwords, different-but-related ideas and proprietary-sounding business catchphrases that it’s hard at times to keep up. And perhaps I’ve dropped into the late middle of an earlier conversation, as the book references a “focus-expand-redefine” growth cycle elaborated upon in three earlier works known as “the trilogy”.

A more charitable explanation of my confusion might place the blame with the authors themselves. Take the way in which they describe the main shifts in strategy they say they are witnessing, which led them to write the book:

  1. less about a detailed plan and more about general direction and critical initiatives
  2. less about anticipating how change will occur, more about having rapid testing and learning processes to accelerate adaptation to change
  3. effective strategy increasingly indistinguishable from effective organization

The central insight from their research, the authors claim, is that,

complexity has become the silent killer of growth strategies

Why? The authors don’t take pains to explain or justify the assumption that the world is more complex and that “traditional” strategic notions no longer work in this new world order. They just accept it as common wisdom and run with solutions for responding to it.

Building “Great Repeatable Models”

The next several chapters detail what Zook and Allen call “Great Repeatable Models”, which are businesses defined by the following three principles:

  1. a strong, well-differentiated core
  2. clear nonnegotiables
  3. systems for closed-loop learning

According to the authors, GRMs (germs?) were

sharply, almost obviously, differentiated relative to competitors along a dimension that also allowed for differential profitability

which I think is another way of saying they have a lucrative competitive advantage.

Similarly, the authors suggest that nonnegotiables are a company’s

core values and the key criteria used to make trade-offs in decision making

while systems for closed-loop learning enabled GRMs to

drive continuous improvement across the business, leveraging transparency and consistency of their repeatable model

which I understood to mean that the businesses had a culture and process for improving their practices over time.

The Cult of the CEO

Chapter 5 of “Repeatability” seeks to demonstrate how the CEO is the guardian of the three principles of GRMs. While it clearly makes sense that the CEO, as the chief strategiest and top of the organizational pyramid would have a role in implementing and enforcing a GRM, the authors offer little here to help other than numerous examples of success and failure in following the three principles followed by a hopeful conclusion that the “right leadership” will be in place to manage the delicate balancing act they specify as ideal. It seems to place the book in the Cult of the CEO genre (idealizing the role and superhuman nature of corporate chief executives) while simultaneously causing much of their writing up to that point to seem extemporaneous.

It’s almost as if the presence of the “right leadership” implies the presence of a GRM, and the absence of a GRM implies the absence of the “right leadership.” The book suffers from hindsight bias and tautological reasoning like this in numerous areas.

My own simple interpretation

The central tenets of this book are confusing, poorly defined and at times self-contradictory. Its research methodology (inductive empirical study to explain complex social phenomena) is frowned on by this Austrian economist. Ironically, it is the occasional element touched upon at the periphery of the book’s argument, rather than its core, where the authors manage to share something meaningful to solving the dilemmas of business people.

Unfortunately, the encouragement to keep the distance between the CEO and the customer minimal and to articulate a simple vision that even lower-level employees can grasp and rally behind, for example, is rather intuitive and obvious. Why would adding layers of bureaucracy and arbitrary decision-making, or creating a business plan so elaborate your employees don’t understand it, ever be a sound practice?

There’s a lot here including many case studies and other reference materials, but not all of it is useful or makes sense when viewed through the prism of the Great Repeatable Model. For some the digging required to find the occasional nugget of wisdom may be worth it but I can’t recommend such exertion for everybody.

2/5