The political firestorm that broke out surrounding Enron is over — but the corporate practices that drove it are still happening. For example, Elizabeth Holmes, formerly heralded as a Silicon Valley wunderkind for founding and leading the health-care tech company Theranos (and herself the daughter of an Enron executive), is currently on trial for an alleged act of corporate fraud akin to the years-long practice of cooking the books and inflating profits at Enron. And Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee turned whistleblower, recently testified before Congress to reveal a range of troubling practices at the company.
In fact, the same business culture that allowed Enron to commit fraud for years has also produced companies like Theranos’s and Facebook. All three of these companies are products of a business-oriented fixation on newness, disruption and innovation that took hold during the first dot-com boom in the late 1990s.
“Innovation,” of course, has been an important business value since the rise of the knowledge economy after World War II, when large corporations invested heavily in research and development. Management scholar Peter Drucker drew a direct connection from this emerging knowledge economy (though he did not use that specific term) to innovation in his 1959 book, “Landmarks of Tomorrow.” For Drucker, by then an established authority on modern business, “innovation” meant “purposeful, directed, organized change.” In other words, innovation was a sober-minded pursuit.
Yet in the 1990s, this focus on newness and innovation morphed into an outright hostility toward tradition.
In 1990, for example, one business writer declared that companies should “break away from the old rules.” It was a sentiment that business reporters and management consultants echoed and amplified over the next several years. Later in the decade, Clay Christensen’s book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” introduced terms such as “disruption” into our broader lexicon.
It seemed to work. The dot-com boom produced countless exciting new start-ups led by improbably young executives, including Napster’s Sean Parker and Kozmo.com’s Joseph Park. In short, the decade’s disdain for conventional approaches to business seemed wholly justified.
Enron was a part of this booming economy. In the late 1980s, Enron revolutionized the natural gas industry by developing new financial products and derivatives that could be purchased and traded alongside resources from its vast natural gas pipeline system to offer customers reliable gas at predictable prices.
At first, many of the company’s executives were deeply skeptical. When Jeff Skilling, then working as a consultant, presented the plan to other executives at the company, one dismissed it as “the dumbest idea I ever heard in my life.” But as it turned out, Skilling’s idea was a roaring success. Large buyers of natural gas were happy to enter into derivatives deals with Enron if it meant the ability to lock in set prices and supplies of the fuel. In addition to providing a needed service, Enron made a lot of money, and Skilling himself joined the company’s leadership.
Massive profits bred arrogance. In 1999, for instance, one Enron executive told a group of business students that “those who believe that history will be a predictor of the future” were in for a rude shock since “just about everything we do, the way we relate and the way we understand our world” had changed.
Nevertheless, the business media championed these ideas, touting Enron as an example of a forward-thinking corporation. Using Enron as an example in his management book, “Leading the Revolution,” Gary Hamel predicted that success in this new era would not simply be a matter of learning the ins and outs of a particular industry, but rather “radical innovation” and “creating revolutions.” The author of this book preferred companies that were “devoid of tradition.”
Over the course of the 1990s, Enron’s marketing literature consistently reinforced this image. When the company launched its “Ask Why” campaign in 2000, the commercials’ ultimate message was “Enron’s restless dissatisfaction with the status quo and its ability to quickly grasp how most things can always be improved.” The company’s marketing team even hoped that “Ask Why” would become a “rallying cry” for a “new generation” of business executives.
In another nod to the era’s infatuation with Silicon Valley, the company even announced plans for a unit called Enron Xcelerator, which would develop new lines of business.
When Enron sponsored a Frank Gehry retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, the company sought to draw a connection to the renowned (and innovative) architect. In the pages of the book that accompanied the exhibit, it featured a statement from Skilling that read: “Enron shares Mr. Gehry’s ongoing search for the ‘moment of truth’ — the moment when the functional approach to a problem becomes infused with the artistry that provides a truly innovative solution.”
Unfortunately, though, this comparison to the celebrated architect arrived mere months before the company fell apart. The trouble really began in August, when Skilling himself resigned. In an attempt to right the ship, Enron’s leadership commissioned an internal study to assess the mood at the office — and it was not good. One disillusioned worker summed it up nicely: “What people are defining as chaos now we would probably have defined as creativity and entrepreneurship a year ago. But the bloom is off the lily right now.”
Those words proved to be prescient. In the months that followed, the company tried to come clean about an accounting fraud that had festered inside it for the previous five years. As it would turn out, many of the innovative businesses Enron had created in the second half of the 1990s were failures. For years, the company was able to raise money and report spectacular earnings only because it was hiding losses through absurdly complicated arrangements with shell companies created in-house.
What followed was a shockingly swift collapse of the company’s stock price. Finally, on Dec. 2, 2001, the company acknowledged the inevitable: It was bankrupt. At the time, it was the largest bankruptcy in American history, although WorldCom’s fall a few months later was even bigger. For the next few years, uttering the word “Enron” could quickly invoke the worst that corporate America had to offer.
Congress attempted to rein in such practices, with legislation that introduced stricter rules around financial auditing and accounting and other rules aimed at preventing another Enron, such as requiring a company’s CEO to certify the firm’s financial statements.
But the business spirit that characterized Enron is still here. The fixation on newness and disruption and the lionization of young entrepreneurs like Holmes and Mark Zuckerberg, who have little patience for tradition and received wisdom, are just as much a force today as they were 20 years ago, right as Enron collapsed. For instance, Facebook’s famous maxim — “move fast and break things” — is not that far removed from Enron’s self-professed “relentless dissatisfaction with the status quo.”
That’s why we need to remember one essential lesson from this history of Enron: to be skeptical when some glitzy new company or fawning business story about a brash young entrepreneur bombards us once again with claims of disruption and innovation.