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When Everyone Was Excellent

With "In Search of Excellence," co-authors Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. turned management advice into a fashion industry. Here are some overlooked aspects of the blockbuster book.
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In 1982 two consultants published a book exhorting companies to embrace the eight attributes of 'excellence.' Herewith, eight oft-overlooked aspects of the blockbuster that turned management advice into a fashion industry

1. HOW BIG A SURPRISE IT WAS. Before they published In Search of Excellence in 1982, coauthors Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. conducted some book-industry sales research--being McKinsey & Co. consultants, after all. "We found that Peter Drucker's books did about 100,000 copies," recalls Waterman, "and Theory Z, the biggest seller of the moment, sold about 150,000. And we thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could do 200,000 books?"

As of March 1999, In Search of Excellence had sold roughly 4.5 million copies, both in hardcover and softcover, in the United States alone and had been published in almost every country in the world. Having hit the top spot during its three-year stint on the New York Times best-seller list, it proved that a book aimed squarely at company managers could indeed "find a mass audience," says HarperBusiness publisher Adrian Zackheim. "It expanded the range of possibilities for management books."

2. WHY IT LOOKED AS IF IT HAD BEEN EASY TO WRITE. Because it was easy to read, that's why--an entirely novel quality for serious management books at the time. Of course, says Waterman, that ease was the result of 26 drafts. Peters and Waterman--buttressed ever so briefly by a ghostwriter--cranked away for two years before they got a zero-defect manuscript. The casual, anecdotal style that made In Search of Excellence so accessible and memorable was not evident in its early drafts.

3. WHAT PEOPLE OVERLOOK ABOUT IT. While that anecdotal style is often credited for Excellence's success, "what people miss is the amount of sheer research that went into the book," says Waterman. "We formed a theoretical base for the ideas that people remember." And that grounding, he says, made all the difference. During the research phase, Peters, who was finishing his Ph.D. (in decision science and organizational behavior) at Stanford, spent much of his time doing fieldwork, visiting companies. Waterman took a breather from his typical work to labor over the final manuscript. Excellence was both authors' first book. "I don't think Tom and I could ever do a book in that way again," says Waterman. "There wouldn't be time."

4. WHAT PEOPLE MEAN WHEN THEY SAY IT SPAWNED AN INDUSTRY. The book's blockbuster status changed the business of being an author--which hadn't exactly been a business, up to that point. On the speaking circuit, Peters commanded about $60,000 an appearance, which put him in an elite league of podium pounders. He even earned a mention in The Guinness Book of Records as the world's highest-paid management consultant. And what Peters did onstage wasn't anything like a straightforward rendering of the text. With an eye toward making the book's message real, as well as demonstrating his own mastery of the leadership skills managers needed, he challenged, confronted, exhorted, and threatened. And between his bellowings, he even managed a joke.

5. HOW IT CHANGED THE WAY WE TALK. OK, give Peter Drucker knowledge worker, a term he had the foresight to coin in the 1960s. Still, In Search of Excellence introduced labels that have stayed current to this day: close to the customer, a bias for action, value-driven, stick to the knitting. Such phrase making, glib though it was, made accessible the practices Peters and Waterman identified as worth emulating. "We were putting names to what good managers were already doing," says Waterman. "The ideas in the book weren't new. They were just gathered together and made sense of differently."

6. WHY MANAGEMENT-SCIENCE FOLKS DIDN'T TAKE THE BOOK SERIOUSLY AT FIRST (AND WHY THE REST OF US DID). McKinsey insiders didn't immediately like the book's anecdotal style--which was not surprising, given its departure from an M.B.A.-style quantitative approach to business writing that had prevailed for the previous decade. (Dilbert, in turn, can be interpreted as a backlash against management gurus.) But when the book was still a work in progress and the authors were using more of a standard-issue academic approach when they presented its contents to clients, they "bombed," in Waterman's assessment. Unfortunately, he and Peters were also using that dry style in the book's earliest drafts. Better change it, the writers decided. "We said to ourselves, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could capture this so it felt like being there--being inside Hewlett-Packard, say?" recalls Waterman. "We wanted to capture a gestalt." After switching to an anecdotal approach, they found audiences much more receptive. And why not? Their stories had heroes (who were enterprising and antibureaucratic) and villains (who were slow moving and indecisive), and the authors made it seem as if the latter could be transformed into the former. "A reviewer once wrote, 'If Peter Drucker invented management, Tom Peters and Bob Waterman vivified it," says Peters.




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