To Make an Elephant Dance – A review of Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?

Hey guys, so this was an old review that I wrote in school that I recently dug up, thought it might fit here, so enjoy!

In the early 90s, and IBM, or Big Blue as it has always been called, was in deep trouble. Up to that point, IBM had always been considered a great success story in the rapidly growing technology industry, but by the late 80s, the company was considered by many to be in irreversible decline. Its main product lines are in trouble, with mainframe sales collapsing, PC sales dropping, and internet services decimated by competition in the telecom industry. It was at this critical moment, that Louis Gerstner, an outsider, was brought into IBM to help right the ship and stabilize the company. Who Says Elephants Can't Dance? is the story of this remarkable turnaround, written by Louis Gerstner himself.

To fully understand Who Says Elephants Can't Dance? One needs a strong understanding of the historical circumstances in the technology industry of the late 1980s and the early 1990s. When Louis Gerstner took over, IBM was a collapsing empire. It still had strength, talent, and capabilities, but its products lines had stagnated, management had no direction and the corporate culture was hopelessly outdated. Gerstner did the virtually unthinkable, an executive formerly from the biscuit and financially industries managed to take control of IBM, and turn it around; reclaiming its leadership position at the head of the technology industry. After his departure from IBM in 2002, he wrote this book, providing insight into the turnaround of IBM, from the heart of the storm itself.

The book is formally divided into four sections: Grabbing Hold, Strategy, Culture, and Lessons Learned. They were roughly divided by topic, with each section subdivided into chapters, talking about different individual topics in technology or management. Within many chapters, Gerstner discusses how IBM's formally successful policies and practices has stagnated and lost touch; turning the once nimble, flexible company into the inflexible and slow moving "elephant". He has had great success turning around IBM, to "make the elephant dance" so to speak, and each chapter talks about an individual aspect of how he made it happen.

Grabbing Hold, the first section; discussed how an outsider like Gerstner was able to take control of a monolithic organization with a very strong internal culture like IBM. Told roughly in a chronological order, deep insight was offered into the unique corporate structure of the IBM of old and how Gerstner had to wrest control away from the monolithic bureaucracy. The ordering of the chapters in chronological order makes it a surprisingly well written and intriguing story. Grabbing Hold focuses heavily on how a smothering bureaucracy can resist change, and how an outsider can take hold. Overall, this section is very well written, with a strong focus on why certain decisions were made.

The second section, Strategy, delivered sharp analysis on the technology industry in the 1990s. Gerstner takes on the role of a futurist, a task he was surprisingly competent in. The rise of software as a service, IT outsourcing, and the commodification of the consumer technology industry are just some of the things that he predicted. This section is brilliantly written, and is probably the main selling point of the book. It's not a cliché and jargon filled management book pushing the same tired techniques, it is a refreshing take on business strategy and technology. Gerstner's background in biscuits probably wouldn't inspire much faith in his technological predictions. However, years later, many of his predictions were proven to be uncannily accurate, making this section a must read for technology enthusiasts.

Culture is a short section, with only 3 chapters. However, its importance cannot be understated. Gerstner himself believes that culture is the heart and soul of a company like IBM, and is the building block of every successful company. He explored how stagnated corporate culture stuck in a long gone era was the cause of IBM's failures and struggles. Overall, this section was the weakest of the book. IBM's culture is simply too unique and overbearing for the lessons presented here to be applied elsewhere. After all, how many other companies have a company song or a company-wide dress code? Judged on its own merits, this section provides very compelling insight to one of the most unique company cultures. However, relative to the other sections, Culture lacks the universal applicability that was present in Grabbing Hold and Strategy.

The whole book finally leads up to the last section. Lessons Learned is where everything comes together. This section is slightly repetitive, as some of the points made earlier in the book were repeated. However, there is still quite a bit of new analysis, and Gerstner's analysis is worth a read. He comes to a few interesting conclusions regarding what the lessons can be learned from his time at IBM, making this section the most interesting of the four.

Overall, the content is top notch, told from an extremely unique perspective. Gerstner wrote in the first person perspective, but unlike most other books written by corporate executives, he was not afraid of criticizing the policies and practices at IBM. He isn't afraid of pointing out his own mistakes with some self-depreciating humor. The humor helps make Who Says Elephants Can't Dance? quite an easy and enjoyable read.

The writing is surprisingly easy to digest. For a book on management and technology, the writing is actually surprisingly easy to comprehend. It is light on jargon, and Gerstner's writing style is humorous and descriptive. Poorly written management books could end up as a horrific read, with readers losing track of the events. Who Says Elephants Can't Dance? is very well written in this respect. It is very easy to follow along the train of thought, to understand the circumstances and thinking processes the author employed to allow him to make managerial decisions.

Overall, Who Says Elephants Can't Dance? is a spectacular book examining the nuances of the technology industry. The predictions were uncannily accurate, and the critique was spot on. In the fast moving world of technology, books get outdates rather quickly, but the lessons taught by Who Says Elephants Can't Dance are timeless and are still very applicable today. It is very well written and easy to read, with lots of humor spread throughout. It is a great book, very well worth a read.