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"Crazy times call for crazy organizations." (Management analyst Tom Peter's management restructuring scheme)(includes related aticle) (Cover Story)

Passionate pundit Tom Peters delivers a wake-up call to association executives.

Tom Peters is storming across the stage, accusing his audience of about 3,000 association executives of same-ole-thing management. They hate it. He is ticking off examples of traditional ways of work that are either changing dramatically or destroying corporations--taking with them the chief executives. They get it. He is describing the people he thinks most likely to save today's organizations from demise: kooks and weirdos. They love it. As the comments of Curtis Deane, CAE, reveal, Peters can pull a listener in different directions. Here's what Deane, managing director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Washington, D.C., had to say at the end of Peters's keynote presentation at ASAE's 73rd Annual Meeting & Exposition in August: "Since Tom Peters's purpose is to shock, I guess the fact that I hated his speech shows that I got his point."

Expressing how underwhelmed he is with corporate management and association management (and ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT) for not embracing the latest and craziest and most essential in organizational leadership, Peters angered his session attendees. And he charmed them at the same time. He screamed at them. And enlightened them. And motivated. And disturbed. With his hilarious, thunderous, nerve-wracking warning about the future for unwacky change-resisters, provocative Peters no doubt lit a fire under many seats in the house.


On the telephone earlier, Peters's manner was somewhat more subdued. But his unshakeable belief still came across crystal clear: "These are crazy times; and crazy times call for crazy organizations."

That's the main message of his latest book, Liberation Management: Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties, which calls for "revolutionary restructuring" and for putting "zanies" in charge. This 1992 work came 10 years after Peters's blockbuster first book, In Search of Excellence, which he coauthored with Robert Waterman, and became his fourth to make The New York Times nonfiction list. His other two books were A Passion for Excellence (with Nancy Austin in 1985) and Thriving on Chaos (1987).

In addition to writing and speaking, this management researcher, analyst, and consultant runs three training and communication companies. To balance out his frenzied life in California's Silicon Valley, he spends half the year in Vermont, tending a 1,300-acre farm with llamas, sheep, goats, horses, cows, chickens, and donkeys.

Here are some of the famous farmer's unusual notions of success.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: Since publication of In Search of Excellence, what has surprised you most about success and failure in organizations?

Peters: I am surprised at how much companies and organizations have changed in the last 10 years--that's the good news. I underestimated their ability to do so. The bad news is that the times have changed so dramatically that most |organizations~ are farther behind than they were when they began.... The degree at which information technology has changed everything was literally unthinkable 10 years ago, except in the eyes of a couple of futurists.

Whether we're talking about an association or about a company making automobiles, most are far too conservative for the times. Most are not as bold and as brash and as crazy--to use a term that I think is a very good term--as they need to be for this moment.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: How can associations help the professions and industries they represent deal with these changes?

Peters: Challenge the conventional wisdom.

The average association executive does a pretty good job of listening to his or her leading members, and the average association executive has new programs coming up every day. But I'm really struck by the degree to which most activities--particularly when you think of lobbying--are amazingly defensive as opposed to offensive. It's sort of, how to protect what we had in the 1980s or '70s or '60s, rather than, how can we really help position this industry for the year 2005 or 2007 or 2008.

It's fire fighting and trying to hold back the tide, rather than asking, "Shouldn't we be pushing in an entirely new direction? How can we be in front of this thing? How can we be positioning the industry in a surprising way?"

|What~ I think marks a successful athletic team or a successful association or a successful company is creating the new and pulling people in directions that they never dreamed they needed to go or even wanted to go.

I am a fan of associations, and I think it's clear that they can make a significant difference. The question is, Why don't more of them do that?

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: What do you think is the answer to that question? Why don't more associations try to change and make a difference?

Peters: The list of items to be worked on for the year is normally staggering. You do what's on your to-do list, and you never quite get around to the things that actually might make a difference.

You have to pay attention to what's on today's to-do list--I'm not arguing that. But I think the difference between successful and unsuccessful individuals is the ability to, at some level, say, "damn the torpedoes" and move forward on a more aggressive agenda.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: In another interview, you mentioned that a necessary "busting up" of organizations is going to mean "a lot less top brass" in the future. How can organizations help promotion-hungry staff adjust to the decreasing opportunities for advancement in an increasingly flat business world?

Peters: People who spend their time angling to climb the next step up the ladder--I have no patience for them. People who make a difference are the ones who go from interesting assignment to interesting assignment; and if the interesting assignment brings you more wealth, more glory, and eventually a leadership position, so much the better.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: Who stands out as the most visionary thinker today? Whom are you a fan of?

Peters: Anita Roddick, of The Body Shop, would come in as close to the top of the list as anybody I can possibly imagine. She's got a set of beliefs that really are the essence of what she's about. ... She really does live that set of beliefs, and it happens to have been tremendously effective commercially in a very, very difficult industry.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: Have you read a management book this year that you'd recommend?

Peters: The Virtual Community, by Howard Rheingold. It's about these new computer bulletin boards, computer conferencing, and organizations that sort of exist in space and time but not in buildings. I thought it was a truly profound description of the world into which we're moving. I don't think |Rheingold~ would be on many people's management guru list, but he certainly is on mine. His is one of the half dozen more important books I've read in the last several years.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: Is there anything in any of your four books that, in hindsight, you wish you hadn't written?

Peters: Well, the answer is yes and no. Things have changed dramatically ... at some level, there's not a single page in In Search of Excellence that I wouldn't want to make at least a small change on. On the other hand, I was comfortable with each of the four books at the time.

I don't think this is much different for most other writers. If you are obsessed with hindsight, you probably will not publish a single paragraph, let alone a book.


1. Go virtual. You are "virtual organizations," living by network power, as the age of virtual organizations arrives. Take advantage of it. Exploit it to the hilt.

Since the shapes of industries--and their boundaries--are changing dramatically, much more of your work--perhaps most of it--will be done in alliances with other associations. You'll also need to pay much more attention to specialist subsections of your membership; the generalist association will go the way of the multipurpose, corporate conglomerates of the 1960s.

2. Look for your role to fundamentally change. A global knowledge-based, export-led economy is quickly emerging. If you are not aggressively global in your thinking (and most associations are not, by a long shot), you are badly misserving your members and losing out on the opportunity of the decades ahead.

Steps in the right direction include vigorously recruiting nondomestic members, getting members from around the world to participate in all your training and knowledge-management activities, and supporting free trade, which in the long run benefits us all.

The use of electronic bulletin boards, the creation of on-line virtual communities, and the like will also be paramount--which leads me to admit that I was underwhelmed in reading through several issues of ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT by the references to using new technologies that were beyond primitive but hardly advanced.

The good news: There are role models among the associations. In the August 1993 issue of ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT, Kathryn Johnson, CAE, president and chief executive officer of The Healthcare Forum, San Francisco, calls her association "an action-oriented think tank, not a typical trade or professional group." No, not typical right now--but, I'd judge, it had better be typical pretty soon.

The Healthcare Forum has moved farther than almost any organization, association or otherwise, I can name. It has created an impressive virtual learning community. Now it's beginning to experiment with hooking the community together electronically.

3. Beware too much focus on a diffuse, transparently self-interested legislative agenda at the expense of grasping the opportunity to build real muscle via learning from one another. I acknowledge your right to hustle legislators on your members' behalf. But I don't see that as the No. 1 advantage of the association; more important, I think it has gone too far. The nation is becoming paralyzed by (and fed up with) special interests; those who play their hands too aggressively are going to get whopped the hardest. The recent move to restrict lobbying expense deductions is but the opening salvo.

4. Beware of doing too much. Peter Drucker said it years ago: Priorities are easy. Choosing what not to do is the hard part. Most association agendas are staggering and therefore futile. The age of the new-look specialist, who focuses on what's important ("core competencies," as the gurus call them), is at hand. Divest extraneous activities. If necessary, spin out pieces of the association that don't fit with your main message.

5. Think transformation. As I read through several issues of ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT, I was struck by the humdrum nature of most of the improvement ideas I saw featured and touted. They were nifty, but they were not transformational.

I do believe a 1,000-mile journey begins with a single step and that constant improvement can have an enormous cumulative impact. But these days, I'm also fretting about "improvement-itis"--frantically cleaning today's rug just as it's being pulled out from under you.

6. Develop marketing plans that aim for reinvention of the association--to make it much more compelling to its members. Why shoot for a 4 percent membership increase in 1994? Either aim to double your membership by providing scintillating, new approaches and programs that draw people in, or plan to cut the membership in half and refocus where you can make a significant difference.

7. Evaluate your management effort and ask yourself, Is it right? Are you warming a chair so you can put your kids through college? Or are you nervy enough to try to make a mark? At age 50.8, I think about such stuff a lot more than I used to. Remember, any mark you make will come from one--or at the most two--special, controversial acts that aggressively set your association off in a pioneering direction.

8. Put yourself at risk. Unless you have the guts to sail boldly in uncharted waters, you don't deserve to be in any leadership role--in an association or any other enterprise--in the '90s.

In one association leadership article, I read that the best leaders are "disciplined visionaries." Hold on! Who are the people we say have made a difference? Ted Turner. Steve Jobs. Al Neuharth. Norman Schwarzkopf. Most such folks are plumb crazy. To be sure, most crazies fail. But the handful who succeed, in and beyond associations, are responsible for almost all progress.

Editor's note: What do you think about Tom Peters's management philosophies? Have you applied any of his ideas--or those of any other management specialists--at your association? Other ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT readers would enjoy hearing your opinions and learning about your experiences in revamping your organization. ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT encourages you to write a letter to the editor.

Gerry Romano is a senior editor of ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Society of Association Executives
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Author:Romano, Gerry
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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