The Ten Commandments for Business Failure

Reviewed by: 
Donald R Keough
Alistair Schofield, Managing Director, Extensor Limited

Click here to purchase.
(All sales commission goes to charity)

The most remarkable aspect of this book is that it exists at all as the author, Donald Keough, was the President of Coca-Cola when New Formula Coke was introduced.  Following a public outcry, the company was forced to return to its traditional recipe and the massive amount of money spent on launching the new brand was wasted.  It was one of the most high-profile blunders any business leader could ever make, yet, to his lasting credit, rather than sloping off into quiet obscurity he is prepared to publish a book with a title like this!

Don Keough is clearly a man with a fantastic network of contacts.  The cover of the book boasts comments from Bill Gates, Jack Welch and Rupert Murdoch and the foreword is written by Warren Buffett.  But despite his network of friends and the lofty positions he has held, Keough is clearly a self-effacing man with his feet firmly on the ground.

I have always taken the view that business is simple, it is just people that make it complicated.  It is a view that I suspect Keough would agree with as, despite his lifetime in business, he distils his experience down to ten simple principles.  He does not claim that these are a guideline for success, simply that you are guaranteed to fail if:
"… you quit taking risks, are inflexible, isolated, assume infallibility, play the game close to the foul line, don’t take time to think, put all your faith in outside experts, love your bureaucracy, send mixed messages and fear the future."

Keough explains each of these ‘commandments’ a chapter at a time with wonderfully anecdotal examples, many of which are from his own past.

For example, in his typically self-depreciating style, he describes an occasion when the head of their German business submitted a proposal to expand their business in the new democratic state of East Germany.  Having rejected the proposal out of hand, Keough was surprise to find that the head of their German business tended his resignation on the basis that Keough had not considered the proposal properly, did not know the potential of East Germany and had not taken the trouble to visit and see it for himself.  The result was that he did visit the country, they did make the investment and it was a huge success.

While these stories illustrate Keough’s points very well, they also made me wonder why it took him until retirement to come up with a set of ‘commandments’ that, if he had applied them to himself throughout his six decades in business, could have transformed a successful career into an outstanding one?

I suspect that the answer lies in the simple truth that most parents are acutely aware of, namely, that ‘they won’t be told’.  In Western societies we simply don’t hang on the every word of our elders, we want to learn by our own mistakes and, as a consequence, we repeat many of the mistakes of the past.

Despite the glowing tributes that this book has and will continue to attract, I am therefore sceptical as to whether it will have any real impact, or whether readers will simply find it amusing to see the same basic errors being made over and over again.

But please don’t let my cynicism put you off.  The book is short, to the point, entertaining and profound.  It can easily be read in a few hours and it would be an excellent idea if the CEO of every large organisation was forced to read it at least once a year.

Click here if you would like to purchase a copy of this book.