July 27, 2009

Thomas Peter's confession

Okay , I have been reading Tomas Peters and Robert Waterman's 'In Search of Excellence'  for a good hour or two. It was generally interesting to see what they say about business excellence

Apparently the book was a big hit during the 80s , and even today, you can find 6-7 copies in the library which kinda suggest the book is a worthwile read right?

But hey I came across this article (link) attributed to Tom Peters himself (written by an editor who interviewed Tom) , written in 2001, where he confessed to criticisms that he and Waterman faked the data in the book Search. What I find amusing though is he also talks a lot of well known business figures like Drucker, Xerox , and the dark side of McKinsey where he worked as consultant. Some of the quotes from I like from this article are ...

"I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote Search

The 8 basic rules of management in Search originated from

"One morning at about 6, I sat down at my desk overlooking the San Francisco Bay from the 48th floor of the Bank of America Tower, and I closed my eyes. Then I leaned forward, and I wrote down eight things on a pad of paper. Those eight things haven't changed since that moment. They were the eight basic principles of Search. "

Why did he write this book? Because he was pissed! Pissed at what?

"Who was I pissed off at? At Peter Drucker, for one. Today, everybody acts as if Peter Drucker has always been one of those who gets it. Go back and read Concept of the Corporation. Peter Drucker may be an Austrian, but he's more German than the Germans when it comes to hierarchy and command-and-control, top-down business operation." 

You think Xerox is a great company?

"Xerox was considered to be the company of the century, but I knew better. There it was, all in one place: the bureaucracy, the great strategy that never got implemented, the slavish attention to numbers rather than to people, the reverence for MBAs -- you name it....So here it is: If you want to reduce Search to a core message, that message would be this: Xerox sucks."

I am only up to page three and  this gives me a sense of thrill and excitement like I am reading up on some business gossip ... haha...

Despite confessing in public of his that the book doesnt quite stand up in terms of academic rigor, by the time you get to about page 4 (of the article, not the book) , one begin to see that that despite the inadequacies, his main message was essentially right "Soft is Hard". He argues the conventional wisdom at the time was Hard was Hard. People who deeply believed that strategy, structure, procedures, and numbers were the ten commandments to business management. This message mirrors all the stuff we have been learning in our class so far EFQM, Six Sigma, TQM, Kowledge management and so on. The key message is this, without an utter attention to the people, all the best strategies, tools, programs, initiatives are close to complete uselessness. I believe this is also something that deep underpins my current project which is looking at some of the limitations of these management innovations. Looking back , the reason that the message of this book was essentially correct is, I believe, not a mere coincidence. The fact is , even though the data (presumably qualitative data the authors claimed to have interviewed business managers) was fabricated, the fact is both of them were consultants who had years of experience with business industry. Furthermore, Tom himself got a PhD from Stanford on Organisational behaviors . Taken together they probably had a pretty good theoretical background on business management, and a practical view of real world business. Coupled together it was not suprising their conclusion were not too far from the truth. The book itself , allude to plenty of management theorist at the time such as James March, Karl Weick, Chandler and many other well respected organisational and management theorists, making a strong case for their argument from a academic point of view.

In the last couple of pages, Tom concludes that he is no longer interested in excellence, but he is interested in interesting. He argues the way business may suceed in today's world of fast paced environment is daring to try, to learn, and be different. Customer does not buy the same even if it has always remained the same for many years. They buy new, cool things. However, we often attribute consistency to quality as well , for example if every can of Heinken has a slight different taste, would it still be popular as it is today? So, here then is one of greatest paradox of business. "To be excellent, you have to be consistent. When you're consistent, you're vulnerable to attack. Yes, it's a paradox. Now deal with it!"

At this point I am also thinking about whether it is appropriate to try and define excellence (i.e. find the set of associated characterisitcs). The difficulty and the dilemma with this exercise is , like many other kind of vague mysterious words e.g leadership, love, courage, what ever you come up with, you can always find an exception to the rule.  If excellence is what Tom describe it to be - Different, then perhaps the very exercise of trying to define it (and hence standardise it) , very much contradict what it means to be Excellent.


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