Tuesday, January 31, 2006

I read (Russian History and Change)

One of the readers of this Blog told me the other day “You read a lot!” – well I’ve always tried to deny it but I guess he is right.

There was a time when I used to boast about reading a lot, then I discovered that HR departments and the like looked down on this activity. Apparently it’s a sign that your a little anti-social, not a team player, an individualist. And perhaps theoretical rather than practical. So, please don’t mention it in an interview.

Truth is, as Robert Redford said in Three Days of the Condor: “I read.”

Not sure if I read a lot, or if I just squeeze reading into time that would otherwise be lost: on the bus, the tube or when I’m waiting – for anything! I’ve never considered myself a fast reader but maybe I am.

However, I have amazed myself with the speed I’ve read my latest book:
A History of Modern Russia - 500 pages have rushed by in a month, helped by two transatlantic flights and a couple of days off work with a stomach infection.

I usually have two books on the go at any one time, usually a fiction novel for light bedtime reading and something more serious for daytime reading. Usually the second is a business, technology or software book but every so often I like to take a break with something different like history.

However, as I read this book I became convinced of two things. Firstly, Russian’s are their own worst enemy, and second, there is a lot for managers and marketers to learn from twentieth century Russian history.

One of the themes of the communist government was the idea that technology could fix their problems – a new type of week, a new tractor or factory and everything would be OK. Like modern managers they tried to fix a social or economic problem with a technology. Unfortunately this is all to common.

Two stories stuck out for me.

First one, in early years of the Communist Government there was a food shortage. The Government ordered that all food should be handed over to the central distribution system on year. Since there wasn’t enough to go around they wanted to control distribution to all. They repeated this in following year third year there was a disaster.

The peasants who worked the land had been removed from the market and distribution system. The Government knew best. Not only had their incentive to farm been removed but they had been told that “management knew best.” So they simply stopped looking after the land, there was no food from the peasants for the Government collect and distribute.

The second story that stands out is about Gorbachev’s change programme. To start the change he needed to change the story of communist success fed to the people with the story of failure and the need to change. Of course this upset people who felt threatened.

Next he proceeded to change the personnel. But the scope of the problem was so large that simply changing the managers didn’t fix the problem - not all of the managers followed through and introduced change. The real problem was that for years people had been conditioned to keep their heads down and not try anything news.

It is over 20 years since Gorbachev began his reform programme. I don’t think I ever appreciated just how difficult his position was or quite what he was up against. He had allies in the change programme but he also had enemies who wanted him to fail. Nor did all his supporters agree with one another.

So often when we reads about change in companies it sounds straight forward, I think the change in the Soviet Union reminds us just how difficult it is.