Hard To Swallow

If Tom Peters has all the right prescriptions, why aren't we following them?
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Tom Peters's new book, Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), is pretty inspiring. When I finished it, I sat down and dashed off a few Peterstyle suggestions for the editorial department here at INC.

* Throw a party honoring the people who check every article's facts, grammar, and typographical accuracy. Give bonuses for every issue that's error-free.

* Ask the circulation department for a random selection of 100 subscribers a month. Get everyone on the staff to call four, asking what they like and don't like about INC. Pump readers for ideas about new features.

* Appoint someone Phone Phreak. (Many, many people who call INC. complain they have trouble getting through.) Ask the Phreak to find out how long it takes an average caller to reach a human being, then to gather information on better telephone systems. Prepare a petition -- signed by the whole department -- requesting action from management.

Good ideas, right? And vintage Peters. Emphasize quality. Listen to your customers. Innovate. Involve and reward people at every level. Above all, take dramatic action to right whatever's wrong.

So what are we waiting for? Why wouldn't my Peters-like ideas be implemented? (Leave aside the fact that I'm not the boss around here.) Alas, the objections were easy to anticipate -- so easy that, if someone else had come up with the ideas, I'd probably be in there objecting.

Do you think we have the time for all that?

A little gimmicky, wouldn't you say? You'll never get journalists to go along with Mickey Mouse requirements or cornball pats on the back.

The phones? We'd need a whole new system. Too expensive.

There, in microcosm, is Tom Peters's problem -- and American business's.

Businesspeople feel in their gut that Peters has something to tell them. Ever since In Search of Excellence (written with Robert H. Waterman Jr.), they have been snapping up his books, devouring his articles, flocking to his speeches and seminars. Thriving on Chaos -- which presents the Peters principles in literal handbook form, 45 "prescriptions" on how to transform your company -- should find another big audience: it was slated for a whopping first pressrun of 150,000.

Whether businesses want to do what Peters recommends, however, is another question entirely. For a while after Search was published, some companies organized discussion groups on how to implement its nostrums. But those have mostly disappeared now, and as Peters readily acknowledges, all too few businesses practice what he preaches. A giveaway: the people and companies held up as exemplars in Thriving are mostly the same ones we read about in Peters's previous works. If others are on the Excellence trail, they're well hidden by the underbrush.

What to make of this disparity? Peters himself, evidently, has decided he's not hollering loud enough; Thriving's tone is shrill, its message relentlessly urgent. The world has "turned upside down." The prescriptions that were "nice-to-do's" before are "must-do's" now. And what prescriptions! Among its strictures the book advises us to add six new features to our products every 90 days; to eliminate all first-line supervision right away; to increase productivity by 100%; and to do about 25 other big things, all while we're wandering around the plant, spending several months on the road listening to customers, and writing "ten thank-you notes per week for jobs -- particularly small ones -- well done."

That kind of world-class overstatement, unfortunately, begins to sound like parody, as some snide reviewer of Thriving will no doubt discover and exploit. And it feeds the notion, widespread among cynics, that Peters is all hot air, a fire-and-brimstone preacher whose words send shivers down you spine on Sunday but don't bear any relationship to what you do Monday morning. (Fortune implied as much a few months ago, in a disparaging article lumping Peters together with Zig Ziglar and other silver-tongued "merchants of inspiration.") Peters is looking for born-again converts, no doubt about it. But to dismiss him purely for his evangelical rhetoric is to forget he's talking about this world, not the next.

Fundamentally, after all, Peters is right. The problems he addresses are likely to turn up not only on Monday but the rest of the week as well. If you haven't at some point worried about dispirited employees, dissatisfied customers, or ever-stiffening competition, you must be doing business on a planet other than Earth. The market really is changing, and if you're not changing you're losing around. Then too, Peters's points and anecdotes may be familiar, but they are nonetheless compeling. 3M Co. does introduce a phenomenal number of new products. West Coast retailer Nordstrom does go to extremes to serve its customers well. The companies that do their jobs best outpace their competitors by orders of magnitude. Peters has figured out how they do it, and he's impatiently trying to tell us.

What's missing from his catechism, however, is exactly what he needs to make it more credible, and thereby encourage his readers to act as well as listen. Peters underestimates, even ignores, how hard it is to convince anyone to do anything differently from the way they did it yesterday or the day before. Think about the reactions that often greet even the smallest managerial initiative: cynicism, foot-dragging, outright defiance. Imagine renegotiating a labor contract or suddenly altering four sales clerks' job descriptions. Or say you decide to implement just one of Thriving's prescriptions: "Reconceive the middle manager's role." Are you prepared to fight with the middle managers who can't hack your reconception, firing them if necessary? If you're not the chief executive officer, are you prepared to fight with him?

Peters wants everyone to understand the urgency of radical change, right now. But major changes (and some not-so-major ones) require major management battles, often on several levels at once. And the obstacles aren't just inertia and insecurity; people may see no reason to try changing things. If the company's in trouble, they'll be too busy plugging holes (or looking for new jobs). If business is good, why should they bother?

Right there, I believe, is why Peters's otherwise powerful, commonsensical propositions have been so slow to catch on. This is a shame: American companies could use a healthier dose of the Peters prescriptions than they've so far been willing to swallow. Maybe what we need is another book.

Are you willing, Tom? This time, don't just preach from on high; get down and dirty. You'll have to quit giving speeches for a while -- maybe you spend too much time talking to CEOs anyway -- and instead spend several months on the shop floor of a company that's trying to change (not one that's already living up to your standards). Then tell us, straight out, what you see and hear.

I'd want to read that report. What did the engineers say when they were told their designs weren't good enough -- and that they should expect to come up with improvements every couple of months? How did the nervous vice-president of marketing take it when the boss began hanging out with salespeople and calling customers to ask if they were satisfied? Exactly what happened when the company tried to organize itself into your self-managing teams? Transforming even a small organization's patterns and routines can be a wrenching, threatening undertaking. You'd help your readers by showing them how one company threaded its way through the difficulties.

Until Peters writes that next book, however, I'll recommend -- unequivocally -- that businesspeople read Thriving on Chaos. Never mind that its message isn't new; it's worth hearing again. And never mind that it's overstated; better too much than too little. Peters doesnht help with the daily management problems on the way to corporate transformation. But he has figured out what's happening in the marketplace, and he knows the goals companies should be shooting for. Both should stimulate some thought; maybe even some action.

Last updated: Nov 1, 1987




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