I love a good business success story, especially one in which a leader is able to transform a company like this one by Steve Lohr in the NY Times about IBM’s success over the last decade under the leadership of Samuel J. Palmisano

During his tenure, I.B.M. has been a textbook case of how to drive change in a big company. Unlike so much of the study of business innovation that focuses on start-ups and entrepreneurs, Palmisano understands pivotal elements that apply to any business at any stage. His guiding framework for change boils down to just four questions:

  • “Why would someone spend their money with you — what is unique about you?”
  • “Why would somebody work for you?”
  • “Why would society allow you to operate in their defined geography — their country?”
  • “And why would somebody invest their money with you?”

Palmisano succeeded at IBM by innovating and taking risks, mostly by answering the first question – What is unique about IBM? He grew the company in areas that took advantage of IBM’s unique strengths and had the courage to divest large departments, like personal computers, that didn’t play to those strengths.

What struck me was that his questions aren’t company-centric. Each question asks how the company can provide value to others – customers, clients, employees, and investors. When you look at the needs of who you are serving, you are more likely to give them what they want, which in turn leads to your success.

The untold story in this article is that these questions, just like mission, vision and values statements, are useless without a good HR department conducting regular training and communication, to make these questions resonant throughout the company. It takes a critical mass of staff and leadership who live and breathe these messages, to actualize the company’s vision.

Stuart Somer

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