He is one of the best-known businessmen in Britain: first as the chairman of ICI from 1982 to 1987 and more recently for his lead role in television's Troubleshooter, in which he analysed ailing organisations and gave their directors advice. Britain needs more businessmen like him.
Does he therefore make a good 'guide to management through the 1990s'? A good guide in unfamiliar terrain will need to be able to: divine the way; have learnt from previous journeys and so offer advice about how to survive; and communicate well so that people listen. Sir John hopes that 'this highly personal perspective on why things are going to be so different' will be of help to younger businessmen and women.
The book is a mix of management philosophy and nitty gritty advice about surviving in business. His philosophy is an attractive one: it emphasises trust, real delegation, an exciting and challenging work environment without too much routine, and coaching rather than supervising. Much of it is a repetition of his first book, Making it Happen, which was about leadership. Again he emphasises that ' . . .there is no intrinsic reason why my robot, or my computer, should be any better or any worse than its Taiwanese competitor. The struggle of the Nineties will be about what each of us does with the same tools, how we view our strategic aims and how we organise and motivate our people'.
What is different from his first book is his advice on business strategy, with its emphasis on survival.
Few businesses, he points out, have a long history. Sir John has strong views about business in the Nineties. He believes it will be tougher than before.
There will, he argues, be enormous and unpredictable external changes. Even the predictable ones like the single market and the development of technology are not receiving enough strategic attention. He says: 'I believe the Nineties are going to punish those who do not think fundamentally about the problems.'
We cannot judge how good a guide he is to the unknown, but his warnings can alert managers to prepare for rough sailing.
The chapter on 'Bad Weather Sailing' gives four keys to recessionary management: concentration, costs, cash and communication. Managers should concentrate on reducing costs rather than hoping for an increase in revenue, though he warns that people 'will cling to almost any straw and hope to avoid making cuts'. Real cost- cutting means doing things differently. Contracting out services will transform fixed costs into variable costs. Cash management becomes even more vital: 'Companies that go to the wall during recessionary times do so because they run out of cash. Companies can survive for a long time without profit - but cash shortage is self-accelerating and hits with the speed and destructive force of a typhoon'.
There is specific advice on making use of the new opportunities in Europe. He warns of the dangers of being sucked into a financial and managerial black hole. His advice is to focus on developing relationships in one or two EC countries.
After doing your analysis of business possibilities, 'allow yourself the luxury of a little personal bias'. Here he is speaking as a chief executive, since this is the person who will have to build up personal relationships and it will be easier to do where you like the country and the people. Sir John is good at distilling lessons from his own experience.
He argues that it will be easier in the future to make money and survive by selling services and solving problems than through manufacturing. This probably reflects previous experience at ICI more than his current responsibilities as chairman of The Economist and a non-executive director of Grand Metropolitan.
A shortage of money in the 1990s is one change he thinks is predictable. Capital will be harder to come by and more costly, so the able management of finance will be critical.
Sir John has a gift for the vivid phrase and for using analogies to highlight his advice. Dismissing one-shot panaceas, he likens management theories to a set of golf clubs where the manager has to decide which club is appropriate. Training managers, he says, is 'exactly like training sportsmen. They need constant praise, but must never be allowed to feel that they have 'got there' - there is always another hill to climb, and in the Nineties the hills will become higher and tougher at a terrifying rate'.
But the book is not well written. Neither the author nor the publisher can have read it through with a critical eye because there is much repetition. Some chapters read as though dictated and not re-examined. Sir John is a credible guide to 1990s management; a good editor would have made him more credible.Reuse content