Have you ever watched, or been involved in, a business failure, where, despite the best efforts of hardworking people, the business doesn’t survive? Scott Sonenshein lived through it, as he describes in the Introduction to his engrossing book Stretch. (In some books, the reader can skip the intro- not this one; the introduction is a must-read part of the book.) He was hired by start-up Vividence in Silicon Valley at the very apex of the tech boom. Despite prestige VC backers, top-tier hires and $50 million, Vividence didn’t make it. As his career continued, that experience led to an interest in why some well-funded operations don’t succeed, while other, more resource constrained, do.
Peter Senge wrote about reinforcing cycles as part of his book The Fifth Discipline, which I consider one of the finest business books ever penned. In it, Senge describes the downward cycle that some companies fall into, and why it is so difficult to reverse. Sonenshein explores those cycles from different point of view- an organization and resource perspective- and develops concepts for the reader to consider on how organizations – and individuals- can take a fresh look at resource availability and achieve much more success with fewer resources.
In full disclosure, I had the pleasure of working with Randi Sonenshein, Scott’s wife, who is a highly-accomplished executive in her on right (and a delightful person) and assisted Scott in writing Stretch. And I met Scott on a few occasions. (He is now a Professor of Management at Rice University). Further, while I wasn’t part of Silicon Valley, my employer at that time he was at Vividence was a product and service provider to numerous established tech firms as well as start-ups, and thereby I had a first-row seat as some of our customers flourished and some vanished. Those experiences clearly shape not just one’s thinking but entire career.
The core concept that the author develops is that of opposing approaches and mindsets: one that we might label as the conventional U.S. approach of more and better results are obtained by having or acquiring more or better resources. He labels that approach chasing, and the practitioners chasers. The alternative approach is stretching (and stretchers) which requires looking at the available resources in unique and thoughtful ways to get better results from better utilization.
Mr. Sonenshein explores those two viewpoints and the effect each has on society, enterprise and the individual. The book title likely gives away that he concludes that stretching is almost always better. The book is liberally peppered with examples of business leaders who’ve employed stretching to optimize resources. While some stretched from lack of an alternative – the beautiful example of young black woman Sarah Breedlove Walker, born in the post-Civil War-South, lifting herself, and then other black women, out of abject poverty by starting a business from almost nothing; other examples feature enterprises like D. G. Yuengling and Son, which could have afforded to devote additional resources to launch a growth strategy, but chose instead to stretch existing resources, acquire used equipment and the like. As opposed to some of its competition at the time – Sonenshein calls out Stroh brewery’s aggressive growth via acquisition strategy only to crash- Yuengling remains as America’s oldest continually operating brewery.
In closing chapters, he provides various techniques to examine existing resources to ferret out alternative uses, warns of traps to avoid, and how stretching as individuals can lead to personal growth.
Stretch is not only useful, it is an entertaining read.
I totally enjoyed it, and it goes in my personal library of business books worth keeping as a reference. Probably next to The Fifth Discipline.