In Search of Stupidity Mark Chapman


  • “If you examine high tech companies, only one factor seems to constantly distinguish the failures from the successes. This factor is stupidity. More successful companies are less stupid than the opposition more of the time.”

This premise sort of undermines the typical quest in business for prescient vision, incisive strategy and bold leadership. The real answer is…just be less stupid. In the Leader vs. Manager dichotomy, it a strong endorsement for the power of decent ‘Management’ to drive powerhouse success rather than ‘Leadership’.  Rather than simply bemoan failed outcomes, Chapman provides prescriptions for alternative strategies that would have yielded better results. One area he explores extensively is public relations screw-ups (eg. Intel Pentium, Siebel Nucleus report). While the natural reaction to adverse publicity seems to be to hide, deny and distract, Chapman proposes a more embracing approach of admit, apologise and learn. 

Despite its apparent condemnation and ridicule of failure, it is actually both an entertaining and insightful study of it. In the process, he does occasionally feature nuggets of failure’s embrace…

  • “Years of success also played a factor in Novell’s insular attitude. When a company has done so well for so long, it’s hard not to think it has it all under control. But, as Bill Gates has always known, in a modern capitalistic society, they really are all out to get you. Properly channelled, paranoia is a useful management tool.”

Failures like Apple’s recent IOS5 stumble actually appear more the rule than the exception in the world of high tech. Certainly, a read of Chapman’s book will make any high tech executive experiencing a failure feel the comfort of plentiful and esteemed company. He also heralds a failure to ever fully understand or master a market, themselves black boxes of complexity and volatility…

  • “What is excellence in the context of one industry is a waste of money in another. If business is war, then it’s an odd sort of ongoing guerrilla conflict in which the enemy can be an opposing company one day and a division or business unit at your firm the next. Markets are swampy, Escheresque lumps of chaos studded with redoubts and obstacles that disappear and reappear from any direction, studded with over and under ramparts onto which confused invaders stumble and then stagger off from view. And even when you succeed in your objectives and take the field, sometimes the field disappears beneath you, and you find yourself slogging about in a pale foam that obscures your vision and leaves you wandering directionless in a vast wilderness. And sometimes you get amazingly lucky.”

Applied to my alma mater he ascribes…

  • “Microsoft’s success with Windows, which, depending on how you count these things, ranges from $60 to $100 billion (and still counting!) is as much a result of good luck and stupidity on the part of its competition as much as any vision on the part of Microsoft. No strategic plan that anyone would take seriously could include the actual events as they unfolded over the decades.”

Embrace the stupidity…just be less stupid than your competitor.