“You promised.  You told me that if we talked, I would learn the secret to business.  Well, we’ve been talking for a long, long time!  A hell of a long time!  So tell me now, because, as you know, I’m in a lot of trouble, I need to pull a rabbit out of a hat to survive, I need that secret, I need it now!” 

A day later, in the morning Fed Ex, there appeared a white and red Box marked “Open with Care”.

He tried to rip the box open, but couldn’t.  The damn plastic envelope, the plastic wrap, the space age tape… so he took a pair of scissors, separated the blades, and cut his way in.  Hands trembling with exertion, anticipation, and frustration, he finally made an opening big enough to pull out another box, this one encased in bubble wrap and bound like a mummy in plastic shipping tape.  Again, scissors slashing, he cut through the bubble wrap casing, and extracted from its plastic cocoon, a simple unmarked cardboard box, 10 inches long, 4 wide and 4 high.  “Christ, this better be it,“ he thought to himself.  This second box opened easily, as if designed by Steve Jobs, just touch the top and the lid popped up revealing… a wooden doll and, attached to the inner lid of the box by a single narrow strip of translucent plastic tape, a small but powerful magnifying glass.

“What the…,” he said to himself.  Grimacing, he removed the wooden doll from the box.  It was a heavy, painted wooden doll:  a cartoonish babushka wooden doll, or should he say the outer first casing of what he suspected would be many friggin’ cartoonish babushka friggin’ wooden friggin’ dolls.  He remembered the stupid name … Matryoshkas, Russian, okay maybe babushka wasn’t it, matryoshkas: nested dolls.  GOD!  His blood pressure shot to the moon.  Shaking his head, his lips going white and thin, his fingers tightening around the doll, he muttered “I can’t believe it!”  One more stare, a long stare this time, palms sweating, now pressed against the desktop, he looked hard, just to be sure of what he was seeing.  Finally the words fighting chaotically in his head formed the complete thoughts he had been reaching for since the lid to the box slipped open … There is no secret to business; there is just another bleepin’ puzzle. Why can’t he just tell me so I can go find some other way to solve my problem, but no, he sends me worlds inside of worlds, delivered by Fed Ex no less, what a bunch of crap!  Oh, and a magnifying glass too. Crap!”

He stretched for the phone.  Speed dial bleeping, he noticed letters on the bottom of the brightly red painted babushka doll, right across her feet, in black, like the lines outlining her face and body. He slammed the phone down. Don’t want to look like an idiot, he thought.  So taking the doll in hand, he removed the magnifying glass from the lid and using the glass to decipher the tiny printing, he read:  “It has nothing to do with accounting, although accounting helps.”  Well that’s mildly interesting he thought, although his current problem had nothing to do with accounting.  It had to do with missing a production deadline, and … well you know.

So, the secret isn’t accounting… and he sat looking at the doll for a minute or so.  He then got up from his desk and closed the door – he didn’t want others to think he’d lost it, playing with dolls.  Dropping back into his seat, he grabbed the red babushka accounting doll and pulled it apart, revealing a blue babushka doll nested inside.  He took it out, setting the red doll aside, and searched for the new message using the magnifying glass.  He peered at the doll’s feet, where the last message was … nothing there.  It turned out the doll artist had a sense of humor.  Looking at the details on the doll he noticed she held a sign in place of a scepter.  The sign read: “Marketing isn’t it either.”

Well you get the picture; this was going to take some time and he had a growing suspicion that the doll maker, the person who had promised to reveal the secret to business to him was a double crossing so ‘n’ so… BUT he had come this far so he dived into the many layers of encased babushka dolls, each cloaked in a different highlight color, each with a message, and so in the order of disassembly there appeared:

Finance matters but isn’t it.

Creativity is a good thing but isn’t it.

Culture is, but isn’t it.

Technology… nope.

Reputation, don’t think so.

Location, no.

Structure, nope not that either.

Alignment is nice but….

Until he found himself, desk cluttered with 23 doll faces – all of which weren’t the secret.  Finally, in this mess of de-nested doll parts, he reached the center of it all.  And there sat one last doll, this one just a sliver of a doll, painted gold, no cartoon, for it was too small to show lines for face or hands or other details, other than these tiny words that revealed themselves as he slid the magnifying glass over the golden seed in the center of his desk:

The secret to business is that it isn’t business.

Now he grabbed the phone, stabbed the speed dial and before the voice at the other end could finish “Hello“, he shouted, “What are you trying to do to me?  I need the secret to business!  We’re going to die here if we don’t get some real magic right now and you send me this stupid doll thing with every part of every business, rejecting them all, leaving me with this stupid tiny thing in the center that says, well  nothing…. Cryptic inside of cryptic! You have to do better than that.”

The voice, said “Really, that’s what you think?  Why don’t you read it again?  It says:

The secret to business is that it isn’t business.”

Still incredulous, our hot tempered CEO pushed his fingers through his hair with frustration and said “Yes and,” his voice rising two octaves. “And, and, and?”

The voice on the phone replied “and nothing”.

“What the hell is this supposed to mean?”

“It means the mistake many of us make is that we treat business as a special circumstance, a place different from other places in our lives, and that’s a mistake. The secret to business is that it is not business: it is life, life with all of its vagaries, eccentricities, surprises, chaos, warts, discontinuities.

Try viewing your problem, your challenges in the context of the whole world, human behavior, not just business think, business speak.  The solution to your issue is in most cases well outside of business speak or business think.  It’s more like the resolution of a novel, or a play or a family argument that finally gets resolved … like that.   Look at your issue in the same way great thinkers look at history or human interactions and you’re likely to find your way through.”

And you needed to do this doll thing to tell me this?

“Matryoshkas , Yes.”

“Sorry?  Matryoshkas, babushka, whatever, and again why the doll thing exactly?”

“Because the answer doesn’t’ make sense until you go thorough all of the purported secrets to business and see that though useful, none of them fits the bill.  It is an answer inside of many answers because as most people approach a problem, they try all of those things, but the secret is that it is none of those things.  The secret is that business is a human enterprise, really only a subset of human enterprise, and the more you know about human behavior and interactions, the more you know about business at the center … Nested matryoshkas, images of people.  I thought it was quite clever… but never mind. Bottom line is the secret to business can be stated in two ways:

The secret to business is that it is a human enterprise.


The secret to business is that it isn’t business (it is a human enterprise with all the warts and challenges of say King Lear or War and Peace).

Get it?

“Okay, so given this grandiloquent bit of modeling, what am I going to do now?”

“Go back to your problem and figure out what is really happening to the people involved, and sort it out that way, in people terms, whether they be employees, customers, suppliers or a grand mix of them all.  The answers are in there somewhere.  That’s what the magnifying glass is for.  Look carefully, listen well, be perceptive, make them see things more clearly and figure this out.  Once you figure it out you can fix it.  But as you said, you’re in trouble, so enough playing with dolls, better get to work!”

“Got it”.

He took all of the doll pieces, swept them into the bottom right hand drawer of his desk, got up, walked out the door, into the hallway to meet with the several people who could tell him what was really going on, so they could unravel the challenge that he and his business were facing, magnifying glass in hand.


My friend and resident smart thinker Doug Bouey, a Master Chair for The Executive Committee (a CEO organization in Canada) says “business is a way of doing stuff”.  As always, Doug has nailed it.  We have business processes, ways of selling, taking inventory, doing accounting, organizing ourselves, doing things in a business way.  But what makes business work or not work are the people and their interactions, efforts, successes and failures.  The secret to doing business well is to have people create joint success in and for your commercial community (your business).  If you start from there you can almost always figure out how to solve challenges which impede or threaten the business (commercial community).  If you know a lot about business (the how we do things) and know a lot about people, your people, the people around you in your business adventure, you have the secret to business success…. Using that secret, making the secret work better, in short, building stronger and more sustainable commercial communities, is the real job for all of us as business leaders.  We are leading “human beings”, not “human doings”.

Be good at accounting, marketing, selling, manufacturing, and the lot.  Be very good at all those things, but understand that all of these skills are brought to you through the heads, hands, and hearts of humans who, working together make this whole business idea really happen.

Our troubled CEO did solve his challenge and thus he and his company moved on up the learning curve, up the arc of business success.  After the dust settled, he reassembled the matryoshkas into one fat-middled-red-highlighted folk doll. He placed it in the center of the floor to ceiling book shelves in his office.  It stands apart, so he can easily spot it, in a place of honor, surrounded by his many business books, a couple of plaques, and, nearest the doll, at the beginning of a long line of books about marketing, sales, and leadership is one whose three inch spine reads “War and Peace”.

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2 Responses to Matryoshkas

  1. Very well said. It’s been my experience that business is truly about relationships and trust, and yes, the other stuff is important too, but when you take the people out of a business there is no business left; you can survive a while without marketing, etc. – try taking the people out of the business for one day and see how that works out.

  2. Al Young says:

    I like your story Walt. We can get so captivated by pulling levers on the tools of our trade (marketing, accounting etc.) that we forget that the most important piece is the team.
    Not me of course, but I see others make the mistake all the time . . . . .

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