ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - April 2002


Issue Highlight — Business as Usual
- Peter Block has been thinking about all the talk about getting back to business as usual and wonders whether business as unusual might not be better for the nation.

  One From Column B                                                                         Peter Block

 In This Issue...
We Said Teams Are Awesome— in Las Vegas, They Proved It!
Heroes Wear Scrubs Too
Upcoming AQP Courses at a Glance...
Bringing Corporate Philosophy Alive
An Open Invitation to a New Conversation
What Do You Mean by Participation?
Tools for Teams: The TetraMap®
Something Shifted

What’s Up?

Peter Block Column

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Business as Usual

With the passing of the dot-com bubble, traditional businesses are breathing more easily and reaffirming the importance of fundamentals. Even the surviving high technology and Internet companies are repentant, spouting the litany of cash flow, market share, and earning first and spending later. These are signs that things have returned to normal—it’s back to business as usual.

What is the Rule and the Exception?

I find this a little disturbing. This new “business as usual” cycle—where we recover our senses—has been ushered in by the Enron story (a new version of an old story). It will be blamed for manipulating its earnings statements. Its key executives will be held accountable in some mild way, as if they did something atypical and morally offensive. Ken Lay will be the sacrificial lamb, particularly tender and juicy because he had friends in such high places. But was Lay really such an exception, or was he “the rule” (business as usual) that went a little too far? Business as usual may give us more cause for concern than for relief.

Perhaps Lay and Enron’s real sin was not in avoiding certain disclosures, but that he met or exceeded the expectations of the game we call business. It may be that this game by its very nature exploits and manipulates stakeholders, employees, communities, and foreign marketplaces—all for the sake of growth and meeting earnings projections. Don’t forget that Enron won awards as one of the best-managed companies on the globe. How could it be an award winner one day and be a collapsing house of cards the next? Was it the way it played the game or the game it was playing? Was the fault in the winner of the award or in the mindset of those giving it?

Another casualty of our moral indignation is Arthur Andersen. It is taking a major hit for destroying documents. In this strange business as usual tale, we are being urged to think that obstructing justice—tearing up documents—is a more offensive sin than the questionable actions that so desperately needed to be hidden. The immediate belief is that Andersen was covering up its own questionable business practices, but perhaps Andersen’s real sin was its loyalty to the client. Could it be that it was so committed to protecting Enron that it sacrificed itself on the sword of its shredding machine? And do we really think that what Andersen did for Enron was one of a kind, something it did not do for any of its other clients? Are not consulting firms major league defenders of the business game?

A Flaw in the “Business as Usual Soup”?

It is also not incidental that the Enron disclosure was followed by several other companies that were forced to admit that their practices, while seemingly legal, could not stand up to public scrutiny. My point is that what Enron may have exposed us to is the somewhat flawed nature of business as usual. Business as usual has an element that may be more unsettling than the dot-com illusion carnival. That element is the exclusive and unwavering commitment to economic value. We have come to accept that the sole purpose of the private sector, once you get past the rhetoric of vision and values, is economic success—period—to the exclusion of most other values, no matter how well-articulated they are.

Enron is not the first company that has moved into markets, using economic and political muscle, to fix the playing table to its advantage. It is not the first to use its power to damage local economies in the process. Enron is not the first company that cared more for its earnings and cash flow than the pensions and welfare of current and past employees. It is not alone in spending vast sums on political contributions—claiming its intent was only to perform its civic duty. Lay and his team are not alone in amassing enormous personal wealth from compensation that they had a hand in engineering.

The Highest Value is Served First

These practices grow directly from the belief that the primary business of the private sector is financial success. Values about employees, community, the environment, and social issues are, at this point in time, peripheral and secondary to the business community. We care about these things when it’s expedient to do so. This is in no way the result of flawed people running our companies; it arises from the way we have constructed the game.

If it were up to me, I would pardon Lay and his team. Their only real sin was losing a lot of money. They would never have been called to account if their balance sheet stayed healthy. Theirs was a reporting mistake, born of hubris and ambition. Andersen’s sin was a reluctance to report a mistake, born perhaps of its own in wanting to protect its client and itself.

Business as usual carries its own set of costs that at some point we will seriously question. We give lip service to questioning business values, but at the end of the day, the Dow Jones industrial average is still the lead story.

Plus, each of us is part of the problem. We glorify the private sector. We think it is fine if an assistant product manager makes more than $100,000 a year and then complain about how teachers, police, government, and not-for-profit employees are “overpaid” when they make half that amount. We romanticize our business leaders and pay Jack Welch millions to tell his story. So why complain about Lay when we helped create him?

At least the dot-com companies were really having some fun and brought a certain innocence to the business world. So what if they spent their venture capital on one Super Bowl ad and lost it all? They were simply foolish and I would take foolishness any day over the often-romanticized traditional values of the way our private sector does its business.

I would like to start a business as unusual movement that is not so easily seduced by wealth and power as statements of value. Until we see that the values of business are a social problem, we will occasionally sacrifice a few executives and consulting firms, make some noise about reform, all with the effect of little fundamental change to—business as usual.

Peter Block is author of the best selling books, The Empowered Manager, Flawless Consulting, Stewardship, The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion, The Answer to How Is Yes: Acting On What Matters and Freedom, and Accountability at Work: Applying Philosophic Insight to the Real World with Peter Koestenbaum. Peter Block can be reached at

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