Nice New Yorker piece by James Surowiecki about the absurdity of much of what passes for business journalism — this time about the allegedly-terminal problems of Airbus.
What much of the talk about the inherent weakness of Airbus ignores is that, just a few years ago, it was Boeing that looked fundamentally flawed, while Airbus was seen as the future of the industry. Beginning in the late nineties, Boeing’s commercial-aircraft business went into a long and nearly profitless slump. In 2001, Airbus surpassed Boeing in new orders, a lead it maintained until this year. During that period, Airbus’s unusual structure was praised; its insulation from the stock market supposedly allowed it to invest in long-term research and development. Boeing, by contrast, was thought to be trapped in a short-term, cost-cutting mentality, because, as one analyst put it, “the money guys don’t reward long-term thinking and investment.” In 2003, Business Week declared that Boeing was “choking on Airbus’ fumes,” and warned that Boeing’s “slip to No. 2 could become permanent.”
Because we underestimate how much variation can be caused simply by luck, Surweicki thinks,
we see patterns where none exist. It’s no wonder that management theory is dominated by fads: every few years, new companies succeed, and they are scrutinized for the underlying truths that they might reveal. But often there is no underlying truth; the companies just happened to be in the right place at the right time. In 1999, after all, it was hard to find a business book that didn’t hold up Enron as the embodiment of one important principle or other. Of course, some strategies and structures work better than others, but real meaning emerges only over the long term. Let’s give Airbus a few more years of floundering before we decide that it should be put out of its misery.
Amen. Thanks to Lorcan Dempsey for the link.