Chapter 9

Decisionless decisions: the continuity trap

“We’ve travelled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we move idly towards eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation.”

Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Act 3

WHEN THE TELEPHONE FIRST ARRIVED AT FRESHFIELDS (now Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer), a law firm, it was lodged in the basement. Partners decreed that the newfangled device was for making appointments only. On no account was it to be used to discuss clients’ business. So the pressure for change had been accepted but the pressure for continuity remained strong. This is often the case, but if these conflicting pressures are well managed, firms can usually deal with threats and opportunities in a timely fashion, without becoming destabilised.

When the desire for continuity prevails over pressure for change, firms can end up “drifting idly towards eternity” and eventually die. In the 1950s, the United States led the world in steel production but lost out to Japan. Research in Motion, makers of the innovative BlackBerry device, took so long to produce a tablet computer that in 2011 the Wall Street Journal suggested the firm be renamed “Research in Slow Motion”. Sony might have had a happier history if it had cut production of its flat-screen televisions sooner than it did, or even exited the business altogether. Diageo would have done better if it had linked its Johnny Walker whisky to Formula 1 racing sooner, instead of persisting ...

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