Reflections on how and why…we work and live.

What Matters Now

April 23rd, 2014 | Posted by admin in Book reviews | Management

“What Matters Now – How to Win in a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition, and Unstoppable Innovation” – ©2012 Gary Hamel, Published by the Jossey-Bass

“If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” – Emma Goldman

There’s something discouraging about the subtitle of Hamel’s book: “Relentless”, “ferocious”, “unstoppable”. Those are not adjectives that I’m eager to spend my days worrying about. But his “How to win..” teaser disguises the larger question he raises: What does “winning” really mean in the 21st century? His answers are as much a sociological insight as a business one.

I don’t want to draw too undisturbed a line between Goldman’s political anarchism and Hamel’s management anarchism but there are some intriguing parallels. While Goldman believed that capitalism was incompatible with human liberty, Hamel insists that embracing freedom and self-determination is crucial to the management view he advocates. But both issue forceful challenges to the status quo. Goldman said, “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Hamel speaks of “mending the soul…ensuring that management serves a higher purpose” – finding ways to rouse the human spirit at work.

Hamel describes himself as a “committed capitalist” and like other defenders of capitalism from Adam Smith to Ayn Rand he believes individual self-interest can feed the common good. Unlike many other modern-day capitalists he insists on one key caveat­–the linchpin of his entire argument:

“Like nuclear fission, self-interest works only as long as there’s a containment vessel– a set of ethical principles that ensures enlightened self-interest doesn’t melt down into unbridled selfishness.”

And he is not kind, to say the least, to a certain brand of capitalists:

“Unfortunately, the groundwater of business is now heavily contaminated with the runoff from morally blinkered egomania. …we must all shoulder the responsibility for protecting capitalism from ethical vandals.”

(For another sobering view of this contamination, see Thomas Piketty’s important new book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”)

Ethics is the philosophical thread that weaves its way through his pleas to rethink the fundamental assumptions of management. The stories he tells about companies stuck in the past and those experimenting in the present all pivot on how leaders regard their relationship with and obligation to the people who work for them.

Hamel’s book is divided into the five categories of things that he says “matter now”: values, innovation, adaptability, passion, and ideology.

His discussion of values is first an angry denunciation of the people responsible for the banking crisis and the “blow up” of the American economy, and second, a polemic against the moral decay he sees at the root of the crisis. Not a failure of capitalism but a failure of ” the custodians of capitalism.” And while he doesn’t have a grand plan for the “moral renewal of capitalism”, he does insist that we must face up to capitalism’s shortcomings “as currently practiced.”

There are, perhaps, some unexpected companies in the section on innovation: Procter & Gamble, IBM, Ford – and Whirlpool. See, in particular, Nancy Tennant Snyder’s book, Unleashing Innovation, “essential reading”, according to Hamel.

But the real rabble rousing comes in the latter half of the book as Hamel challenges the entrenched ideology of management and the relationships in the modern workplace. As he says, “bureaucracy and control have had their day.”

In an earlier work Hamel created his “Hierarchy of Human Capabilities at Work”:
Level 6: Passion
Level 5: Creativity
Level 4: Initiative
Level 3: Expertise
Level 2: Diligence
Level 1: Obedience

 His contention is that in today’s economy it’s the capabilities at the top of the list that create the most value. But there’s the rub. Telling someone to be creative or passionate won’t do much good. People choose each day whether or not to bring those gifts to work – and as Gallup, among others, have shown, mostly they choose not to. The challenge then, is not management getting employees to better serve the organization, but rather creating organizations that deserve the gifts that people can bring to work. Putting individuals ahead of the institutions. It’s not a common view:

“Managers the world over have spent the last decade wringing inefficiencies out of their operating processes. Now they need to face the fact that management itself is a swamp of inefficiency.”

The last section of the book is titled, “Aiming Higher.” Hamel chides us for being too easily satisfied, for not being incensed by “poisonous politicking, squandered creativity, debilitating cynicism, ignoble values, ethical shortcuts, executive egomania…”

In an effort to inspire management innovators he offers 25 “moonshots”, intended as a set of grand challenges – management’s equivalent to eradicating malaria – a collection of big issues that can inspire innovation and focus action. Hamel’s final question: “Who’s going to lead and who’s going to follow.” Aim higher.


Gary Hamel (his web siteis the founder of the California-based think-tank The Management Lab. Since 1983 he has been on the faculty of the London Business School, where he is currently Visiting Professor of Strategic and International Management. Hamel is a co-founder of The Management Innovation eXchange (The MIX)– a groundbreaking open innovation project aimed at “reinventing management for the 21st century.”


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