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Embracing
Ambition:
An Interview with James Champy

 

James Champy is chairman of Perot Systems' consulting practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a best-selling business author--his book Reengineering the Corporation sold more than two and a half million copies--and an internationally syndicated columnist. Champy's new book, The Arc of Ambition, co-written with Nitin Nohria, delineates the path to achievement and examines the seed from which success grows.

 In this interview, Champy explains the basic concepts outlined in his book, shares his advice on rising to meet challenges and grasp opportunities, and lends some insight on the role that ambition plays in business and society.

 

QD: You're known for the concepts of reengineering the corporation and reengineering management. Now you're delving into ambition. Why?

Champy: Ambition is the root of all achievement. Without ambition, no conquests are made, no lands are discovered and no businesses are created, let alone reengineered.

 

QD: What is the "arc of ambition?"

Champy: We have found that the careers of ambitious people typically follow a predictable path--the arc of ambition. The curve of the arc isn't necessarily the same for every individual. For some, the rise of the curve is slow. The first dreams are only dreams--personal, secret, not even divulged to family or friends. Then, as the curve rises, these dreams provide a springboard for action. Sam Walton comes to mind: His schoolboy dreams were finally realized when, at age 44, he opened the first Wal-Mart.

 For others, the curve rises quickly. Ambition thrusts them into the limelight, sometimes right onto the world stage, at an amazingly early age. Michael Dell dropped out of college to found Dell Computer. He became a billionaire while still in his 20s.

 

QD: The arc of ambition rises and thenů?

Champy: The apex of the arc is usually demonstrated by people who try to build something bigger than themselves: a business, a university or even an army. As the arc of ambition declines, every achiever must cope with his or her hardest challenges.

 

QD: Describe the current climate for ambitious achievers.

Champy: Both ambition and achievement now rise and fall with unprecedented speed. This new condition grows out of a sea change in our technological context, a kind of seismic wave that sweeps over the world every half-century or so and reinvents our lives. Each new context brings forth its own versions of the three archetypal figures of achievement.

 

QD: Which archetypes have you identified?

Champy: First come those we call the "creators." They are the true innovators who pioneer a new technology to the point of making an old field technically obsolete. In the arts, dancers like Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham shook off the constraints of classical ballet and introduced the modern age to dancers everywhere. Cubism in painting showed us another way of looking at objects around us and led the way to the 20th-century explosion of abstract expressionism. And Ernest Hemingway's terse style broke the florid patterns of Victorian writing. In the sciences, pioneers from Albert Einstein to Sigmund Freud to Jonas Salk gave the human species unprecedented control over nature.

  Next come the "capitalizers," who market the new technology so energetically that it requires a new infrastructure for its distribution. The nation's electronic infrastructure, for example, has been rebuilt at least three times in the past 70 years or so, from telegraph to telephone, from radio to television, from cable to Internet. In the arts and sciences, the followers and imitators of the creators have capitalized on the freedom now offered to them to experiment and try out new ideas and approaches. Some of the great capitalizers include Albert Barr, who capitalized on the modernist ferment in New York in the 1940s to found the Museum of Modern Art. In the same era, Lincoln Kirstein helped galvanize and organize the modern dance movement.

  Finally come the "consolidators," the professional managers in business and the museum curators and the theater producers in the arts. In business, it is the consolidators who are ambitious to make new technologies work consistently and profitably in corporate settings. Eventually, consolidators tend to look inward to their own corporate cultures rather than outward to changing customer needs, thereby losing the creative and subversive impulses that had brought forth the new technology in the first place. This opens up the opportunity for the cycle of creative destruction to begin again.

 

QD: Where are we now in the 50-year revolutionary cycles of technological contexts in America?

Champy: The first technological sea change in the United States, born during and after the Civil War, was the 50-year explosion of postwar industry and railroads that tamed the continent and turned the United States into a world power. The biggest winners were eight or nine of the most ambitious opportunists ever to soar straight from poverty to plutocracy--among them Jay Gould, Jim Fiske, Jay Cooke, Andrew Carnegie, Philip Armour, James Hill and John D. Rockefeller.

 The second technological revolution arose in the early 1900s from the mass-production techniques of Henry Ford, a classic creator. His Model T spawned the automobile industry that soon challenged the railroad industry, created a booming oil industry and enabled Americans to become suburban car commuters after World War II.

 The third technological turning point, now in full sway, comes from the convergence of information and communications technologies, which have together created an entirely new context, the information economy, supported by the Internet in a now constantly connected world. The computer especially transformed the very nature of work, introduced extraordinary efficiencies in all advanced countries and instilled others with the consuming ambition to catch up.

 These new tools not only force us to alter our present; they also leave us with a largely unusable past and unknowable future. In virtually every change-pressured field, those who plunge ahead typically lack precedents to guide them. Today's achievers often have great visions, but getting from A to Z is often as dangerous and mysterious as sailing unknown seas was in the age of exploration.

 

QD: What advice do you have for today's ambitious navigators?

Champy: Ambition has always required creativity, daring and timing. Today it requires all of these and more. You need extraordinary perseverance and skill to wait out the time it may take for a new technology to progress from a market dream to actual profitability. And, while you hang in, time may suddenly pass you by when some even newer technology pops up to render yours obsolete. In these demanding times, when the forces of creative destruction have never been stronger, success clearly requires an ambition of exceptional intensity--yet corporations are still largely run by cautious executives who are out of step with the times.

 Fortunately, changing times have favored a new breed of entrepreneur, but how much their fresh spirit can reshape management is open to question. As soon as their companies grow large and unwieldy, one price of success, they tend to develop corporate antibodies that can kill the very ambition that launched them.

 

QD: What happens to society when ambition is blunted, especially in large corporations?

Champy: One possibility is that, over time, the companies and the individuals that retain zesty ambition will become fewer and ever more powerful and eventually control the world. History has shown that if wealth or power becomes too concentrated in a few institutions or a few people, the result can often be arrogance, abuse and eventually failure. Such experiences may explain the ambivalence that many people feel about ambition. Still, no society can afford to belittle it, especially now that technology promises ever-greater opportunity.

 

QD: What distinguishes good ambition from bad? What sort of achievement should we admire and strive to emulate?

Champy: Perhaps the worthiest ambition is the one that goads us to make the best of whatever talents or conditions life hands us. We see no virtue in a gifted person who squanders his or her gifts. We rightly admire even a modestly talented person who strives to surpass all expectations. We expect ambition to pay off in something beneficial and respect ambition that adds value to a business, to a community, to knowledge, to life itself.

 

QD: But aren't some people driven by a desire for wealth or power or both?

Champy: Making money offers ambitious people a clear objective, but as the New Testament puts it, "What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul?" Good ambition demands that wealth be created in a way that benefits and inspires others.

 Money brings power, which, depending on its use, can be a force for good, but those who have it must be wary of its corrupting influence.

 

QD: You advised that the ambitious person has always needed creativity, daring and timing, as well as perseverance. Does achievement depend on being in the right place at the right time? Does success depend on chance?

Champy: Timing can be a factor in acquiring success, but daring and timing go together. When daring is augmented by a shrewd sense of timing, a vision of the future unseen by others, ambition flourishes. When timing is augmented by the courage to persevere in the face of obstacles, achievement thrives. Sometimes all it takes is overcoming fear and taking advantage of an opportunity that presents itself. Sometimes it's about creating the right time. Sometimes an opportunity is so powerful, so right in some large sense, that it cannot be denied.

 Without an infinite ability to persist, you won't make it up the arc of ambition. Relentless determination is rare, if only because few people have the grit to keep pursuing an elusive goal. Most of us think it's no fun to look foolish in the world's eyes. But some of these persistent people may well become tomorrow's prophets. It is wise to honor those who won't back away from their visions.

 

QD: Can you teach a person how to rise up the arc of ambition?

Champy: The arc of ambition is no less than a new vision of the creative process that transforms dreams into reality. Ambition--the key to the human condition--can be and must be far more widely disseminated and encouraged. But ambition cannot simply be taught. Nor is it a birthright. Rather, the art of realizing one's ambitions can be learned from experience as we move through the arc of ambition.

 

QD: You often illustrate this journey by referring to towering figures of the past in all walks of life--business people, scientists, political leaders, military thinkers and artists of all kinds. Do you have any favorite role models?

Champy: The human story is fundamentally about people overcoming obstacles and rising triumphantly on the arc of ambition. The story has a cast of millions, in which we all have a part.

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