We were skeptical when a certain management website posited that there are business lessons to be learned from Downton Abbey, the award-winning PBS series that’s set on a fictional Yorkshire estate in the early 20th century. Surely any article that claimed this must be a daft attempt to lure readers with a provocative (but specious) headline pegged to a popular TV show. We were so outraged, we could barely finish our second glass of sherry.
Then we read the article:
“Though companies proclaim that people are their greatest asset, often this is not actually the case. Companies might succeed because they have great software, fantastic processes, a unique business model. It takes people to make these things happen, but a preoccupation with people can actually blind companies to what truly differentiates them from the competition. Downton could bear it if one of the actors decided to leave, but it would be unlikely to survive if the Crawley family were relocated to a smaller ancestral pile…” (In the interest of not spoiling the third season’s plotline, we’ll end the quotation there.)
This insight comes from Thinkers50, an organization whose biennial “t50” rankings are considered “the Oscars of management thinking.” Although it’s generally bad form to claim that your people are not the most important thing in your organization, it’s arguably a truer assertion today than it’s ever been.
“The best ideas may come from the most junior person in the company — or from outside the organization altogether,” notes Nina Easton in Fortune. She quotes expert Don Tapscott, who ranks number nine on the t50, on the topic: “It used to be that your most important asset headed out the elevator every night,” he says. “Now your most important asset may never go up the elevator at all.”
Let’s just hope it doesn’t run off with your daughter.
Another observation on Downton Abbey: “It is Brideshead Revisited meets Upstairs Downstairs,” says Thinkers50.
“The business lesson? Originality is often overrated. Delivering reheated ideas to a much higher quality is a powerful differentiator. Look at the number of successful businesses and products which have simply taken something which already exists, added a bright color, and then marketed it as something amazingly new and desirable. Witness the bottled water industry.”