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Tom Peters: the guru as performer.

Tom Peters has probably done more than anyone else to shift the debate on management from the confines of boardrooms, academia and consultancies to a broader, worldwide audience to become the staple diet of the media and managers alike. Peter Drucker has written more and his ideas have withstood a longer test of time, but it is Peters--as consultant, writer, columnist, seminar lecturer and stage performer--whose energy, style, influence and ideas have shaped the new management thinking of the 1980s and 1990s.

Life and career

Born in Baltimore in 1942, Peters repaid the Navy scholarship to Cornell with a Bachelor in Civil Engineering degree and four years' service in the Navy, spending a term of duty in Vietnam in 1966 before being assigned to the Pentagon in 1968. He left Stanford in 1973 with a PhD in organisational behaviour and worked for the White House for a short while as senior drug abuse advisor. In 1974 he joined the top consultancy firm, McKinsey.

Exposed to consulting assignments in America's blue chip companies, Peters' curiosity and imagination led him in the late 1970s into various aspects of collaborative research, which brought about the development of the McKinsey 7-S Model. This model focuses on shared values, staff, systems, strategy, structure, skills and style. It was in fact the first expression of the shift--characterising all of Peters' work--away from the traditional numbers-centred, rational, analytical and bureaucratic notion of management of McKinsey and many others towards a more innovative, intuitive and people-centred approach.

In 1982, Peters co-published with Bob Waterman In Search of Excellence, which became the business publishing phenomenon of the century, brought Peters worldwide fame and set him off on a new career expounding his theories of excellence. Since 1982, his life and career have been a whirlwind of writing, lecturing, touring and changing his mind. In 1987 he announced that there were no excellent companies (Thriving on Chaos) and set out a management agenda for the 1990s (Liberation Management).

Peters describes himself as gadfly, curmudgeon, champion of bold failures, prince of disorder, maestro of zest, corporate cheerleader and irritator. Fortune Magazine calls him the Ur-guru (the original guru) and the Economist the Uber-guru. He is the founder of the Tom Peters Group and lives on his farm in Vermont, or on American Airlines, or on an island off the Massachusetts coast.

Ideas and works

In Search of Excellence resulted from the application of the 7-S model in an attempt to discover models of excellence in corporate America at a time when the Japanese economic miracle was dominating the literature and the business mood. Peters and Waterman identified eight lessons from their research into successful American firms:

1. A bias for action--excellent companies got on with doing the job, unconstrained by the bureaucratic trappings of their size.

2. Close to the customer--this has since become a by-word in business `musts', but in the 1970s many businesses were still a long way from their customers.

3. Autonomy and entrepreneurship--the entrepreneur has freedom to think, act and invest effort in the organisation.

4. Productivity through people--people are at the centre of Peters' thinking. This was a blast at the past where it was commonly held that large organisations held the key to productivity because only they could handle the economies of scale required for profitability.

5. Hands-on values driven--the shared values of the 7-S model which matter to staff and make the business tick with managers who are not afraid to get their hands dirty.

6. Stick to the knitting--another phrase which has entered the language, and has evolved into core competencies; it warned against diversifying for the sake of it.

7. Simple form, lean staff--successful companies were not preoccupied with their size, organisation charts and procedures, but rather with keeping things simple.

8. Simultaneous loose-tight properties--examples of excellence derived from the faster-moving, more flexible features of smaller organisations, not the more cumbersome aspects of large ones.

When Peters declared, in 1987, at the beginning of Thriving on Chaos, that there are no excellent companies, it was not only in recognition of the fact that many of the companies he had cited earlier had foundered, but also because the rules had changed again; there was no single consistent route to excellence. He and Waterman have pointed out in their book that times change, so companies need to change their approach and shift the balance in order to continue to be successful. Peters has argued consistently that the eight lessons from In Search of Excellence remain valid--the companies he cited which later failed merely failed to follow-through the lessons.

A Passion for Excellence was published in 1985, intended as a sequel to In Search of Excellence. This time the focus was on leadership; the book is not an analysis of leadership, but rather a eulogy to it. According to Peters (and his this time co-author, Nancy Austin) the leader becomes passionate about getting the most out of people, takes to heart the full people-centred implications of the 7 soft Ss, and lays the basis for the culture of empowerment. It was also in this book that Peters starts to return time and again to the centrality of the customer. A Passion for Excellence also reflects Peters' developing presentation style, which exploits his curiosity and thirst for pulling together apparent discontinuities from hundreds of sources into an unified, coherent whole; for illustrating points with stories and anecdotal cases; and for using his perceptiveness of the issues latent in other organisations to make reader and listener uncomfortable, unsettled, reflective, vulnerable or angry.

In Thriving on Chaos, Peters was one of the first to describe the emerging world of uncertainty, of decreasing predictability and accelerating change. It reinforced the sceptic's view that Peters was lucky with his timing: it was published in the same month (October, 1987) that the stock-market crashes in Wall Street, London and Tokyo brought chaos to the world's money markets. Thriving on Chaos was in fact a rejection of the secure, surer world of the past, and a paradoxical, inconsistent description of the uncertain world of the future. Some of the book's themes were already there in In Search of Excellence: customer responsiveness and flexibility through empowerment, for example. But already 1987 was a fast-changing world where increased competition meant speed to market, and that meant fast-paced innovation. Change and improvement were also earmarked as themes for the future, to be embraced, not resisted. Most of all, Peters understood that organisations would need changing, flexible systems for a topsy-turvy world.

Much of this seems conventional wisdom today. It was not in 1987. Thriving on Chaos encouraged managers to cast off their old thinking and to be prepared for a world of change and uncertainty. But Peters had not yet drawn a map of how to get there. Liberation Management was his attempt to draw such a map, by continuing to attack traditionalist scientific management and bureaucratic structures. He argued against the conventional wisdom that strategy follows structure, demonstrating that structure is so set in many organisations that it dictates strategy. He argued in favour of flexible, flowing structures which are anti-hierarchical and based on building up relationships with customers. As he had done in Thriving on Chaos, Peters quotes examples of companies which represent the lean, flatter, flexible and responsive organisation required for prosperity now that the old rule-book had been torn up. Again, Peters focuses on the need to innovate, on closeness to customers and on empowerment. In the late 1990s, knowledge management has become the latest holy grail. Drucker had first mentioned this as far back as 1969 in The Age of Discontinuity, but it was Peters in Liberation Management who asserts that knowledge is becoming the key asset, the working capital of the organisation.

Peters the writer

Drucker may have written more, but Peters is beginning to catch him up. Thriving on Chaos is over 500 pages long. Liberation Management is over 800--and that was after a ruthless reduction process. In addition Peters wrote a column for 10 years as a vehicle for his thoughts and a discipline into which he could channel his thoughts, ideas, observations and continuing flow of examples of companies.

His style of writing, as well as the content of this work, has changed over the years. One of the attractive features of In Search of Excellence was its accessible style. No longer the heavy sludge of traditional management theory, it is written in light, everyday language which requires no glossary. His later works take this lightness to an extreme and reduce the language of management to monosyllabic expressions designed to shock, excite, provoke and stir the reader out of conventional thinking. Hence his 1994 title--The Pursuit of Wow!

In The Circle of Innovation this lightness and accessibility of expression may be construed by the traditionalist to have gone beyond levity and entered the realms of eccentricity, with striking illustrations and word collages. The effect and impact on the individual will no doubt vary.

The Guru as performer

This is an area that Tom Peters has made his own. Many gurus are academics or writers, but few would claim to have the impact of Peters on stage. He has been universally described as a brilliant performer with great stage presence and unbeatable delivery technique. Sometimes delivering two seminars a day in different cities, Peters is acknowledged for genuine interest, concern, even passion for getting people to reflect on the way they manage. His energy has astounded many of his closest colleagues. He has literally travelled the world, constantly renewing and adapting his presentations to his audience.

The Tom Peters Seminar: The Circle of Innovation

The message that comes over in The Circle of Innovation is one that has taken 15-20 years to develop, with Peters continuously adding to and refining the first lessons of In Search of Excellence in the continuing, elusive search for excellence. The Circle of Innovation is an attempt to push the management of organisations beyond the operational strategies of the 1980s and 1990s to anticipate the topsy-turvy markets which are emerging with global markets, the Internet and the ever greater closeness of customer and producer.

1. Beyond change--be prepared to try things out, but do not expect to get things right first time. Forget the past--getting rid of old ideas is harder than getting new ideas. Peters acknowledges the role of stability and regularity but attaches far greater importance to agility.

2. Beyond downsizing--aim to be big and small at the same time, so that you get the benefits of a large organisation--economies of scale, networking and knowledge-sharing--along with those of the small--speed, independence and responding to opportunities.

3. Beyond empowerment--make every job entrepreneurial.

4. Beyond loyalty--everybody learns to think about the future, the customer and the bottom-line.

5. Beyond re-engineering--the conversion of units or departments into full professional service firms with responsibility and accountability.

6. Beyond disorganisation--as the organisation spots and responds to opportunities, it becomes a network of partners, distributors, suppliers and customers with boundaries that are transparent to outsiders.

7. Beyond the learning organisation--stimulating curiosity and creativity everywhere in the organisation.

8. Beyond TQM--towards sustainable product/service differentiation to escape the sameness of today's markets through design.

9. Beyond management--from management to revolutionary leadership. In Perspective

Peters did not actually discover the concept of customers with In Search of Excellence, but he and Waterman bucked the dominance of strategy to remind management that customers came first. If he seems all for discontinuity and disorganisation, it is principally to remind people not to get stuck in the rut of procedures and routine--that unless they think change, creativity, innovation, unless they think differently, they will get left behind.

He has been criticised for not being thorough or academic enough in support of his assertions; for relying too much on his charisma as a performer and on his power of presentation and for `dumbing' management down to a level of mundaneness and banality.

One of the widely agreed achievements of Tom Peters is that for a period of 15 years or more his antennae have spotted where the world of business and organisations is heading before it arrives. His sense of timing has been right often enough for it to be more than merely coincidental. It is also widely agreed that his approach, style and energy have popularised management ideas to a wider audience than ever before. People who attend his seminars agree that he makes management more interesting, provokes and stimulates an alternative perspective, brings management alive and, in doing so, reveals a genuine passion for it.

Managers from all levels and from all types of organisations will say that Peters' influence has been positive rather than negative, and he is spoken of in the same league as Porter, Ohmae, Hamel, Handy, even Drucker. If he has changed his mind, it is because the world of the 1990s has altered radically from that of the 1970s; if he has been inconsistent he has nonetheless stayed ahead of the management times and foreseen, or helped to set, the management agenda for the fast-changing world of the 1990s and beyond.

Key works by Peters
In search of excellence: lessons from America's
best-run companies (with Bob
Waterman) New York: Harper & Row, 1982

A passion for excellence: the leadership difference (with Nancy Austin)
New York: Harper Collins, 1985

Thriving on chaos: handbook for a management revolution
New York: A.Knopf, 1987

Liberation management
New York: A.Knopf, 1992

The Tom Peters Seminar: crazy times for crazy organizations
New York: Vintage Books, 1994

The pursuit of wow! Every person's guide to topsy-turvy
times New York: Vintage Books, 1994

The circle of innovation: you can't shrink your way to greatness
London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1997

Related readings
Corporate man to corporate skunk: the Tom Peters phenomenon,
a biography, Stuart Crainer
Oxford: Capstone, 1997

The witch doctors: what the management gurus are saying,
why it matters and how to make sense of it,
John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
London: Heinemann, 1996
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Title Annotation:discussion of Peters' life, career and ideas
Date:Dec 1, 1999
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