Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Boneheaded aphorisms from Davos’ windy summit


Lucy Kellaway

February 3, 2016

You can always go faster than you think you can. Those are not my words. They are the words of Ms Meg Whitman, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise chief executive, who said them about two weeks ago at the Davos, where they were duly jotted down and published in a collection of quotes from world leaders during their week in the snow.

I admire the Whitman aphorism for its simple syntax and nice short words.

The only trouble with it is that it’s nonsense. Often in business you can’t go nearly as fast as you fondly think you can. When you try, you fall on your face — and Ms Whitman, of all people, should know that.

If her predecessor at HP hadn’t been quite so hasty in buying Autonomy, it would have saved itself a big mess.

The 35 other quotes are almost all as dismal; variously moronic (“The fourth industrial revolution should be a revolution of values”), silly (“Let’s put our optimism goggles on”) or empty (“We are not the prisoners of a predetermined future”).

When I first read the collection I thought it was a spoof. Then I thought the quotes were real, but selected maliciously to make the speakers look foolish. I now discover they were specifically picked by the World Economic Forum not as the stupidest things famous people said at Davos 2016, but as the smartest.

Most disturbingly — given that Davos is kept afloat on corporate money — every quote devoted to business is not just empty, but wrong. Mr Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, picks up where Ms Whitman left off, by declaring: “Speed is the new currency of business.”

On the contrary, there is no evidence that business is speeding up. According to a delightfully sensible Economist article, United States business is as slow as ever.

Still dumber was the following from Ms Emma Marcegaglia, chair of Eni, the Italian oil and gas group: “We need less regulation and more innovation in Europe.

To decide that regulation is bad per se and innovation good is both dangerous and daft. If you operate potentially lethal power stations, regulation strikes me as a very good thing indeed.

Yet the prize for the most boneheaded quote goes to Mr Dan Schulman, CEO of PayPal, who said: “The biggest impediment to a company’s future success is its past success.” On the contrary, past success is the single most reliable indicator of future success.

It forms the foundation of valuation of companies on the stock market; it suggests a company employs good people; that it has deep pockets, that it can raise money cheaply, and can afford to take big risks. Does Mr Schulman really think Yahoo is going to triumph while Google flounders?

The quotes are bad enough when the leaders stick to subjects they know about. But when they stray into other areas, what they say is borderline certifiable.

Every country needs a Minister of the Future,” Mr Benioff insists. No they don’t: As all policy is about the future, there is absolutely no need for a special department for it.

Ms Christine Lagarde is dodgy enough on her own territory — “A degree of volatility is OK. The market sorts things out, eventually,” she says, flying in the face of the evidence of the past eight years — but is even dodgier when she strays. “We’ve heard a lot about the Internet of Things — I think we need an Internet of Women,” she boldly asserts. Is this a joke?

The point about the internet of things is that fridges and toasters have little chips in them so they can talk to each other. Is the IMF chief suggesting that women need chips in them so they can chat too?

But the most dismal quote of all comes from United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron: “I want to hardwire competitiveness into the European Union.

He has no business to want to “hardwire” such a thing; it is in the interests of his electorate that other EU companies are less competitive than British ones.

What are we to conclude from these worthless sound bites? Do they prove that world leaders are fools? Not at all.

I think they establish the truth of a new law that was proposed to me recently by a smart European Commission functionary. He has noticed that the amount of guff talked is always in direct proportion to the size of the audience. Business leaders like talking to big audiences as it’s good for their prestige.

Equally, they know it is bad form to say anything new or interesting to lots of people, as it would mean giving away something for nothing. All the other important speakers are equally reluctant to cast pearls before swine, and so forgive each other their dull platitudes.

The idiots are not the waffling speakers. They aren’t even the people in the audience who have paid through the nose to hear nothing — as their own prestige is enhanced simply by being there. The only idiots are people like me who look at the quotes and are outraged to find them an empty collection of bien pensant twaddle.

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