Summer 2019 (Volume 29, Number 2)
W. Sutton or W. Gretzky: Succeeding in the Present vs. Preparing for the Future
By Philip A. Baer, MDCM, FRCPC, FACR
The famous bank robber Willie Sutton was once asked
why he robbed banks. The answer, known as Sutton’s
Law: “Because that is where the money is.” This maxim
is frequently invoked in medical diagnostics, keeping company
with Occam’s razor and a well-known quote about hoofbeats,
horses and zebras.
On the other hand, Wayne Gretzky was famous for following
his father Walter’s advice: “Skate to where the puck is going,
not where it has been.” Predicting the puck’s future path
left him alone with good scoring chances time after time,
making him arguably the greatest hockey player of all time.
Predicting the future in an incredibly complex world is
more difficult than predicting where a hockey puck will end
up in a limited space constrained by the rules of the game. As
individuals, companies and organizations, we cannot predict
the exact future, but preparing ourselves for likely future developments
is necessary for survival and growth.
I was reminded of this on a recent trip to Antarctica. Our
last stop was Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island in the South
Shetlands, just off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. We
landed on a beach littered with a post-apocalyptic appearing
collection of rusted tanks and rundown buildings and
old wooden boats. Uninhabited now, in the 1920s this was a
beehive of industrial activity as Southern Right whales were
killed and processed to provide whale oil for lighting, and as
an ingredient for soap, margarine and automatic transmission
fluid. We asked our guide how the site came to be abandoned.
It was a classic example of an abrupt paradigm shift.
By the early 1930s, petroleum products such as kerosene had
become abundant and cheap enough to displace whale oil
as a necessary commodity, and Whaler’s Bay was closed. It
seems that John D. Rockefeller, often viewed as a monopolist
robber baron as the head of Standard Oil, had indirectly
saved the Southern Right whale from extinction.
The whale oil industry and Standard Oil are long gone. In
fact, the average large company struggles to exceed a lifespan
of 60 or so years. In recent years, Kodak, Polaroid, GE,
GM, Nortel and RIM/Blackberry are a few corporations that
have risen like Icarus and then crashed. Perhaps they overly
extrapolated the present, rather than focusing on the future
and how they needed to evolve to survive. In fact, the Walter
Gretzky quote was labelled as one of the most overused
corporate clichés in a 2014 Maclean’s article,1 in which John
Roth (former CEO of Nortel) was quoted as using it, to which
the author opined: “Nortel didn’t just miss where the puck
was or was going to be, it found itself stuck at home, waiting
for someone to give it a lift to the rink.”
I don’t know the lifespan average for not-for-profit organizations,
but the dilemmas are likely similar. Should the focus
be on incremental improvements to current activities, or
more radical changes in preparation for the inevitable and
somewhat unpredictable paradigm shifts of the future?.
Thinking specifically of the CRA, we have been blessed
with visionary Presidents, Executive teams, Boards and CEOs.
Well-informed “gambles,” such as splitting our annual meeting
from the Royal College in the 1990s, or purchasing the
Journal of Rheumatology more recently, have cemented our organizational
future in an era where funding may be more constrained
and digital channels become increasingly important.
Most money is now in the digital cloud, not in bank
vaults. Willie Sutton could not adapt to that new paradigm,
but a new generation of digital thieves certainly has. Perhaps
that is why Sutton’s autobiography was entitled "Where the
Money Was," in which he denied originating the Sutton’s Law
quote. By 2020, the CRA President will likely be another Sutton
(no relation as far as I know). My advice would be to look
to Walter and Wayne Gretzky for direction, not Willie Sutton.
1. Jason Kirby. Available at https://www.macleans.ca/economy/business/why-business-peoplewont-stop-using-that-gretzky-quote/. Accessed February 10, 2019. Accessed
Oct. 31, 2018.
Philip A. Baer, MDCM, FRCPC, FACR