Corporate Punks – A Contradiction in Terms?

James Watt

In my recent review of James Watt’s book Business for Punks I mentioned that I needed to write an additional article on whether or not the book was suitable for people working in large organisations.

Business for Punks is the story of how BrewDog was born from a desire in 2004 to revolutionise the beer market to becoming a thriving small business that employs over 350 people, ships beers to over 50 countries, and has 28 craft beer bars around the world.

BrewDog have built their business on the punk mentality, At its core punk is about learning the skills you need to things on your own terms. BrewDog rejected the status quo, being passionate, anti-authoritarian and non-conformist from the word go. BrewDog are not primarily about selling their own craft lager. They set out on a mission “to make people as passionate about great beer as we are”.

It is interesting to follow James Watt on Twitter, as he absolutely lives his philosophy, as you can see in these recent tweets:

So superficially this book is not for corporate types. But depending on how you approach the book, there is a lot there for those people who are based inside major corporations and who do see the need to start their own mini revolutions.

I am speaking as someone who was the co-founder of what could be said to be one of the world’s first unicorns (although I am not such a fan of this term). Genie Internet which at its height was valued as having an independent market cap of £1 billion was created as a wholly-owned subsidiary inside of BT Cellnet which itself was a subsidiary of the telecoms giant BT. There was only one way to build Genie so rapidly, years ahead of our competition, principally Vodafone and Orange, and that was to go a little punk.

For those of you who are interested in the startup scene of the 1990s, and specifically what was happening in the UK, I have written this short book which is an insider’s view of the dotcom boom, and a curated look at some of the products and services which would form the foundations of our mobile and connected world we live in today:

At Genie we were the first people to build a portal which connected SMS to web pages. Remember SMS? Seems simple now doesn’t it but back in the mid 1990s the technology didn’t exist. We had to build it all ourselves. And you simply cannot be agile enough in a global behemoth by following standard operating procedures.

You need to build speed and an acceptance of chaos into your company culture and ensure you hire the type of people that can handle a fast-paced, hectic and occasionally unruly environment.

James Watt

It’s not enough to think and act like a startup, you have to be one. So that is exactly what happened. We were given our own office some miles away from the head office and were basically told to build the future. We partnered like crazy, had a huge amount of fun, we often didn’t know what we were doing and as Watt writes about, we didn’t have a long term plan. We created prototypes rapidly and the ones which proved popular in beta tests went forward into full production. We knew we had a service that people loved, and our growth was rapid due to our (at the time) cutting edge super-low budget viral marketing.

Credit: Simon Robinson

Credit: Simon Robinson

Although a punk, Watt knows which rules you have to play by before you can break them, and that especially includes having a fanatical focus on finances, which we at Genie had. To give you one example, our friends at BT Openworld, the broadband division at BT paid £1 million for the rights to stream an Elton John concert. This was our annual budget, and we gasped at how much we would have been able to achieve with this ludirous budget Openworld had. They were not even agile enough to stream the concert at the time it took place, thereby losing a huge amount of the value.

But in a complex, chaotic and rapidly changing world, constraints are often the catalysts of creativity, another punk tenet, and so we just blagged, bartered and borrowed until the platform finally managed to go from its beta state to a fully fledged mobile internet portal, offering many world first mobile services, such as the world’s first prepay WAP phone, the world’s first internet-only virtual mobile network GenieMobile, and as you can see in the clip from Sky News, the world’s first audio-push service GMusic Live.

I think one of the great pieces of advice in Business for Punks is that it is about controlled and intelligent chaos. Punk is about mastery, not about the acceptance of substandard quality, and so with the new ethos comes a responsibility and continual focus on improvement by trial and experiment:

You can ‘what-if’ yourself to death. Treating an uncertain world as if it is predictable is for charlatans. The surest route to catastrophic failure is not to act and not to take any risks.

So, you need to take action. But make sure you take account of all the other bits of guidance in this book with all the actions you are taking. It needs to be intelligent, leveraged, well negotiated, informed action with a firm grip on your finances, company culture and product quality. And it needs to be fast and furious.

James Watt

There is also a lot in the book which of relevance to women entrepreneurs as well. I am a member of Empower Women Brasil, and this project aims to help not just female executives, but also women across all social classes overcome the many challenges they face. A little punk attitude can perhaps help women overcome the often considerable cultural challenges they face as well as also more personal challenges in their daily lives.

Some of you may know that Maria and I have written about what we term “the dynamics of seeing” in our own book Holonomics. This for us is the foundation of everything, and in the context of large corporations it means being able to break out of the prevailing mindset in order to be able to see the world anew, see people anew, your colleagues anew, see new opportunities. I have also written quite a large numbers of reviews of art exhibitions I have been to, and when I go I am developing myself creatively, culturally, cognitively, and spiritually. Business punks need this dynamic way of seeing in its entirety, and I love Watt’s way of articulating it:

Creative people need inspiration. And they find it in the weirdest places: books, films, galleries, cities, architecture, shops, photos, poems, eavesdropping, random conversations, inspiration is literally everywhere; it’s just a matter of tuning into it. If you can’t find inspiration in everything you look at, then you are not looking hard enough.

I really need to point out that Maria is the absolute epitome of this philosophy, and she is the most observant person I know.

Throughout his book Watt includes quotes from people throughout history who he considers to encapsulate punk philosophy in some way or other. One interesting quote comes from Esteé Lauder, who you would maybe imagine was the very opposite of punk. But her quote is telling:

I love reading fashion magazines, they show me exactly what I shouldn’t be doing.

So to answer the question the title of this article poses, is the phrase corporate punk a contradiction in terms, in some ways it is and in some ways it isn’t, and based on experience probably quite a bit more isn’t than is. if you read my book The Birth of Design Thinking and Startup Culture you’ll find out what happened when Genie re-intergrated back into BT.

Business for Punks can really be contrasted well with John Kotter’s Accelerate. Kotter achieved huge success with his book Leading Change in which he outlined an eight stage process model for large-scale change. Both Kotter and Watt agree that developing a culture takes time, and Leading Change offers much sensible advice. The problem for Kotter comes in his book Accelerate, in which he just makes one or two minor changes to his eight-stage process, which each process stage is now labelled an “accelerator”. I did feel a little mugged when I read the model, as it is just the same as the last one.

Credit: Simon Wardley

Credit: Simon Wardley

Kotter also promotes a two-speed organisational model but I would like to suggest that what is really needed in large organisations is a three-way model as proposed by Simon Wardley. Organisations need brilliant people at every stage along the evolution curve of products and services, and these people will come from three different cultures.

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 11.49.35

Credit: Simon Wardley

What you want is brilliant people in each of these three roles. Each group innovates but innovation is not the same for each group i.e. the innovation of an entirely new activity is different to the feature differentiation of a product which is different from converting a product to a utility service.

Unfortunately, despite being different forms of innovation that won’t stop people pretending there’s only one and that it’s all the same. For example, when we examine disruption we see that:

  • Pioneers don’t disrupt. There is nothing to disrupt.
  • Settlers sometimes disrupt (as in product to product substitution in an industry). This is unpredictable.
  • Town Planners often disrupt past industries. This can be anticipated quite a time in advance.

There are two forms of disruption (predictable and non predictable) but that doesn’t stop people pretending there is one. The advantage of this trimodal method is in recognising that there isn’t such as thing as IT or finance or marketing but instead multiples of. There are multiple ways of doing IT and each have their strengths, their culture and a different type of person.

I outline Simon Wardley’s very lo-fi punk but powerful way to map out an organisation in my book The Future of Value Generation which you can read online.

But if I were to ask the question can people in corporations learn any lessons from a business punk mentality, I would say certainly, especially starting with the very foundation, which is all about being authentic in your mission. Without this, all else that follows will be like running through treacle rather than swashbuckling through adventures in life, and that is what it is about. Sometimes we all need to punk up our attitudes, and sometimes we need a little provocation, a little kick up the bum, and that’s exactly what James Watt delivers.

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One response to “Corporate Punks – A Contradiction in Terms?

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Business for Punks | Transition Consciousness·

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