Review: Breakthrough

By Paul B. Brown  |  Posted 11-01-2003

Breakthrough: How Great Companies Set Outrageous Objectives—and Achieve Them
By Bill Davidson
John Wiley & Sons Inc., October 2003
256 pages, $27.95

When it comes to innovation, the business guru universe is rapidly breaking into two schools of thought. There are those such as consultant Ram Charan, the coauthor with Larry Bossidy of Execution, who believe the process of creating something new can be forced by promoting small, incremental gains—and feel that such gains are terrific, especially in this slow-growth environment. In his upcoming book, Profitable Growth Is Everyone's Business, Charan refers to them as "singles and doubles."

Then there are the "swing for the fences" types who believe that organizations should concentrate on new products and services that will not only transform their company but the entire marketplace as well. Put consultant and author Davidson, who also wrote 2020 Vision and founded MESA Research Group (since acquired by Deloitte & Touche), in the all-or-nothing category.

Starting with the premise that if you don't control your own destiny someone else will, Davidson set out to discover what breakthrough companies such as Barclays Bank, Charles Schwab Corp. and Dell Inc. had in common. His biggest finding—and indeed the only truly "breakthrough" idea in the book—is: "No person or firm will ever achieve greatness without an outrageous objective, and none will endure unless they embrace new outrageous objectives." As he explains, "Outrageous goals force us to consider alternative technology platforms and processes, and thus foster breakthrough innovations."

An example of an outrageous goal: insurer Progressive Corp.'s avowed intent to settle all auto claims instantly. Establishing the goal—which was set after company research revealed that the faster it settled claims, the lower the payout and the higher the customer satisfaction scores—led to a series of innovations. Claim calls are routed to specially equipped mobile vans that can transmit electronic images of the damage to computer databases with diagrams of more than 1,800 vehicles. There, the damage is mapped and estimates of repairs are instantly sent back to the representative in the van, who is authorized to cut a check to the customer on the spot.

Not surprisingly, Davidson argues that the only way to achieve outrageous objectives is if everyone in the organization wholeheartedly embraces the goal, and he lays out the kind of thinking required to make it happen. None of it, however, qualifies as revolutionary: "Focus on the future." "Use advanced technology to drive operating excellence." "Use human resources in new creative ways."

While he occasionally flashes a sense of humor ("The square-jawed individual was the single dumbest executive I have ever encountered"), for the most part you have to slog through the case studies, which seem to feature a remarkable number of Davidson's consulting clients. In addition, if you are not the CEO, you may be left wondering exactly how you are going to garner the resources to make these breakthroughs happen.

Still, if you work for a company that believes in "all or nothing" when it comes to innovation, then you have a blueprint to follow—at least when it comes to the approach to take.

Reviewed by Paul B. Brown, the author of 15 business books, including Citizen Investor (written with Phil Dow), which will be published in January 2004.