Dodging The Greatest Hits Graveyard

I’ve kept a frequent presence at rock concerts ever since I was a kid. Back in the day, live rock and roll shows were reasonably affordable—even if you did have to sleep on the street to get tickets—because bands toured in support of the latest record they had produced. Live shows were a catalyst for selling singles and albums, pushed local radio play, sold t-shirts and memorabilia, and paid for the road antics of the bands who could live and party on “permanent vacation.”

The concert world today is obviously different because the ecosystem is so drastically different. There are still monster arena tours like U2, Springsteen, or the Rolling Stones 50th (gasp!) corporate sponsored anniversary. There are small gatherings of devoted fans at venues around 5000 seats for tireless road warriors like Cheap Trick or Chicago. There are nostalgia plays in casino showrooms or destination bars with one or two surviving members of one-hit wonder acts. And there are tremendous new stars like Adele who play the old game a new way and can still fill amphitheaters at top prices, sell plenty of music downloads, and inspire faith that the CD has a tiny bit of life left for the bygone tribe.

What I have noticed over the course of this music evolution is the underlying key to longevity and not moving down the food chain hasn’t much changed—the survivors tend to deliver a healthy balance of old and new material. This is no small problem, as the fans who come out to concerts are no doubt screaming for an artist to play their big hits. It’s natural. It’s satisfying. It’s a trap.

TSO2005A few weeks ago my wife and I went to see one of our favorite groups, the still somewhat niche band Trans-Siberian Orchestra, best known for their annual Christmas shows and the ever-present holiday single, Christmas in Sarajevo. TSO blends heavy metal power chords with classical music and electric violins, usually with an interspersed layer of spoken storytelling. Several years ago they started branching out from Christmas themes, recording and touring a fantasy tale called Beethoven’s Last Night. This was the first time we had seen the show performed live, and while it was familiar to us, it was not well-known to much of the devoted audience. That was pretty brave, I thought, to tour a concept album that was not necessarily top of mind with their audience, but then they did something I found even more courageous. Toward the end of the show, when they had finished playing Beethoven and the audience expected they would play some oldies, they instead played several entirely new songs that had not even been released online. No one had heard these songs except those who had seen the tour, and the applause following was as you might suspect a bit tentative. The nervous quiet during these songs was not because they were bad, it was because they were new. If you are a regular on the live music scene, you know that awkwardness—but without it, there are no new hits.

New music has to be debuted at some point, that’s why it’s called a debut. Audiences can be very tough on new songs, they pay good money to hear hits and the survival of any act is contingent on meeting the expectations of fans. Yet long-term success is equally contingent on innovating, and facing an audience with the unknown or unfamiliar is always a daunting prospect. Who would willingly trade thunderous applause for quiet, polite clapping? The greatest acts know they have no choice.

Most of the hot Top 40 bands in the 1970s and 1980s would periodically release Greatest Hits albums, mechanical collections of their charting singles, usually pushed by their record labels for bankable cash acceleration. Some of these became all time bestsellers, notably The Eagles and Elton John. The question I always used to wonder when I handed over my cash for a dozen song vinyl collection was whether this was the end of the band or the beginning of a new chapter. For too many, we know how that played out, and we know where those bands are playing today, if at all. A Greatest Hits or “Best of…” album was easy money, the equivalent of predictable thunderous applause. Pushing out new work would remain the heart of risk, and the genesis of going to the next level.

Nothing about this cycle is unique to music. Business is the same, especially technology wrapped as consumer products. You need to play to your familiar success, the current incarnation of your brand, but the moment that catalogue is fixed, you’re doing dinner theater rather than headlining at Carnegie Hall. Think RIM with the standing ovation worthy Blackberry, Kodak and Polaroid with endless scrapbooks of silver snapshots, perhaps now Best Buy longing for a different curtain call than their former contender Circuit City. They all climbed the charts, but staying there remains a different story.

Steve Jobs liked to say that he never believed in focus groups, because it was not the job of customers to tell you what they wanted—how could they know what they wanted when it hadn’t yet been invented? No civilian could concretely describe iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone, or the iPad prior to their release. You can only imagine how many pundits prior to the success of these inventions could tell you of their impending doom solely on the basis of unfamiliarity. Of course Apple never stopped marketing its core line of computers during this unbelievable expansion of reach, they were still playing hits while composing new material and seeding it to the faithful, those with whom they had established profound affinity and could ask to trust them further with the unknown.

I also don’t think it is a coincidence that Steve Jobs was a huge fan of The Beatles, who in an active career that spanned all of about eight years never stopped putting out new material, took themselves off the road to focus on composition and the creative process, then reinvented their sound with almost every album, including a few radical pivots like Sgt. Pepper. Is it counter intuitive that the actual career of The Beatles was so short despite all that new material and no Greatest Hits collection until after their break-up? Possibly, but if impact is the name of the game, it is hard to dispute that The Beatles succeeded most of all at avoiding that most dreaded of dead-ends, The Greatest Hits Graveyard. Their incomparable legacy remains vibrant because they pushed themselves so hard to be innovating all the time while crowd pleasing.

Celebrated descriptors like “Built to Last” and “Good to Great” are hard-won praise tied to nimble companies for navigating the same difficult balance for so many years of reinvention. It’s a lesson in courage and vision that is as difficult to learn as it is to replicate, but it is that very bravery that can guide any individual career from ordinary to enviable. Facing the anxious reception of the untried might not be pleasant when a clear alternative is available, but it’s the only trail that bypasses the one-hit wonders.

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Eyes on HP

Hewlett-Packard is not just any company. It is iconic. Like Disney, Ford, General Electric, Apple, Microsoft, and a few others, it is not only part of business history, it is deeply wound into the fabric of American history. Modern Silicon Valley pretty much begins with Hewlett-Packard—the foundations of information technology as a new sector of productivity, the power of innovation, the hardware/software product life-cycle, the beginnings of west coast venture capital, and the splitting atom of employees spinning off from the mothership to become founders themselves. The Hewlett-Packard story until recently is a magnificent tale.

HP WayBill Hewlett and Dave Packard really did start in a garage. One of the very first products they sold was a precision audio oscillator, to of all people, Walt Disney. They captured their thoughts in a book, The HP Way, reinforcing the need for a company to have a mission and a vision. When we talk about a job being more than a paycheck, a lot of that comes from the work ethic and values of Hewlett and Packard. They set the stage for a generation of entrepreneurs. They made it okay to fail, as long as that failure contained learning that was honestly disseminated. HP on an engineer’s resume was gold. The sales and marketing team was second to none.

It is almost impossible to understand the impact of a global company with over $125B in annual revenue and 325,000 employees changing CEOs four times in six years, not including the interim CEOs between hires. Carly Fiorina, Mark Hurd, and Leo Apotheker each left the company for different reasons, and while the HP board is now taking a lot of heat for perhaps not scrutinizing their decisions around these leaders carefully enough, that is unfortunately water under the bridge. The company is now under the direction of former eBay CEO and recent California Gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who will need to move quickly and definitively to steady the ship.

HP has seen numerous mergers, divestitures, and acquisitions throughout this period of seismic change, and each time one strategy replaces a previous version, the impact is costly. Whitman has said she believes the strategy in place at HP now is largely correct, so if the issues she is facing are managerial, perhaps we will see a positive impact sooner rather than later. My guess is she will dig into strategy a bit more in the coming months, and then move aggressively to make her mark. The sooner she can restore confidence with customers, employees, and shareholders, the better it will be for all those who do care deeply about the company’s future.

Why is HP so important in the scope of business enterprise? When you dig into exceptional business books like Built to Last and Good to Great, both by Jim Collins, you realize just how hard it is for even the strongest corporations to go the distance in an environment of creative destruction. As Collins points out so often in the data he cites, only 62 of the original Fortune 500 companies named on the original list in 1955 remain there in 2011.

The great former CEO of Intel, Andy Grove, talks at length about the “strategic inflection points” facing companies at every stage of their evolution—particularly technology companies—in his critical study Only the Paranoid Survive. Grove makes it all too clear how easy it is for a well established organization with vast resources and expansive markets to miss a fundamental change in the continuum of progress, only to catch its error to late to be fixed, having been lapped by any number of competitors.

Where Collins approaches the challenge largely from the aspect of defining and reinforcing a brand, Grove looks at it from the point of view of ceaseless innovation and refusal to accept the status quo as satisfying. Both approaches are vital, but neither has a chance in the face of organizational chaos. Products, features, and benefits must remain in constant flux, but ideals and values are their balancing counterparts. Remove the rudder from a very fast ship and it really doesn’t much matter what is powering the engine room.

It takes both leadership and strategy to steer one of these mammoth ships through the rough seas of business change, and simply taking those notions for granted is the easiest way for a company to fall from grace. Robert Burgelman, a colleague of Andy Grove who teaches strategy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (and is also a former board member of mine), tells us that strategy becomes real when we apply resources to concepts. We see that very much in action now at HP, but we see those resource decisions changing too frequently in real-time. The leadership of the CEO drives that strategy from concept to action, from white board idea to investment cost center, and if strategic shifts are reversed before cost centers become profit centers, value can be destroyed at an astonishing pace.

No CEO or strategy is meant to last forever, but change them too often, and costs pile up without reward. The toll on staff morale is immeasurable, and the lost jobs from reversing decisions may never be recovered. Employees feel the impact in loss of income, shareholders get pummeled. Customers just move on.

It’s time now for HP to turn the corner. As I said, HP is iconic, it is Silicon Valley. We need it as an example in the tech sector of a company that is Built to Last and can continue to grow from Good to Great. HP dates to 1939. It is the standard-bearer for all the great companies that followed its mantra, were born in garages, and now have office space in the adjacent neighborhoods. If we want to believe companies like AOL and Yahoo can find new creative life through reinvention, we have to have models for long-term success. We need succession plans that show great companies can transcend their founders and achieve new levels of success by ensuring that values are more than words in the employee handbook, and that they are liberating, not confining, as long as the leaders who embrace them help guide their teams through increased commitment to innovation with coherent planning and rigorous evaluation. No shooting from the hip, but no fear of change.

On a pragmatic level, we also need the jobs, particularly in HP’s home state of California. Surely the majority of new jobs in our nation will come from small business and startups, but we can’t afford to lose the ones we have in the enterprise, not for the families who depend on them, not for the state budget that needs the payroll tax. Because of its deep history in the community and legend, HP leads the ethos in Silicon Valley in so many ways, its stability is a reflection of hope, its instability a drag on the headlines when we need a shot of optimism.

This is a once in a lifetime career and company defining opportunity for the new CEO at HP. It’s like getting the chance to manage the NY Yankees after three bad seasons no one saw coming. They might be on a losing streak, they might have made a bunch of bad trades, but they’re still the Yankees. Everyone knows they can win, that they have the resources to win and a history of winning. Meg Whitman just needs to ask herself, what kind of game does she want her team playing, who does she want in the line-up, and where does she need to better read the competitive landscape. A little consistency in management will go a long way.

Let’s hope Hewlett-Packard has it right this time. There is already new criticism of HP’s board that they acted too quickly in hiring Meg Whitman, that she should have first been named interim CEO, or that her background is not right for the job. Their decision has been made, so I am rooting for the new CEO. This isn’t politics, this is P&L. It is critical that Meg gets this right and succeeds. A win for her in this role is a win for all of us.