A feeling for the game: Tom Peters On Excellence

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PAY attention to the market. Listen to your customers. Spend megabucks collecting customer information to the point that you can treat even mass-market customers as individual 'market segments'.

These are the trendy ideas of the past decade, and their proponents (I among them at times) are getting even louder.

Why, then, was I so taken with - and so disturbed by - the profile in the New Yorker magazine of Miuccia Prada, the Milanese clothing and accessories designer.

Market research? Intensive collection of data? Forget it. Ms Prada, according to writer Ingrid Sischy, climbed to the pinnacle of the fashion world by listening to her inner voice.

'The clothes seemed to have something extra to them - or, rather, in them,' Ms Sischy wrote. 'They suggested that someone, not something, had caused them to be.'

She said that Ms Prada's imagination was 'a huge part of who she is . . . of how she does her work', and added: 'Her clothes are driven by her own feelings and by her sharp sense of where we are in the world.'

But she has blown it from time to time. Of Ms Prada's 'dubious' 1989 collection, Ms Sischy concluded: 'She used conventional Seventh Avenue solutions . . . The clothes were overdesigned and it seemed that commercial considerations and self-consciousness - not the usual articulation of her unconscious - were leading her.'

Ms Prada summed up the pratfall: 'I hated all the people around me and I told them it was the last time others would push me to do what I didn't want.'

Her tale may well be the nub of most of the smashing successes in business and in life.

Sigeru Miyamoto, the Nintendo computer game designer who created the Super Mario Brothers, dismisses his customers altogether. 'I am not creating a game,' he told David Sheff, author of Game Over. 'I am in the game. The game is not for children; it is for me.'

Chuck Williams, founder of Williams-Sonoma, the upmarket cookware cataloguer and retailer, would seem to agree. 'I just bought what I liked,' he said. 'I never bought anything that I didn't like. Fortunately there have been a lot of people out there who like what I like.'

In the same vein, Steve Ross, the chairman of Time Warner, can attribute his cable TV success to 'an emotional source', according to reporter Connie Bruck. 'He was a relentless, insatiable consumer.'

What does all this add up to - and what does it imply for running a business?

As to the former, it's what I call the difference between doing something 'for' the market and being part 'of' the market. The former depends on data collection and manipulation, detached analysis, elaborate market plans, and planners, designers and marketers versed in the latest business school techniques. Firms 'of' the market seek out zany employees with out-of-the-ordinary views, nurture a spirit of adventure, cherish instinct and intuition, and dote on things that have never been tried before.

Tom Silverman, founder of upstart Tommy Boy Records, says his firm is in the 'lifestyle' business, not the record business. He believes Nike was the first company to understand such distinctions, and claims that the lifestyle approach is at the other end of the scale from the 'dismal science of market segmentation'.

Lifestyle marketers, he told Fast Company magazine, must undertake 'the difficult work of cultural knowledge'. In practical terms, that translates into something that goes miles beyond self-managing teams and re-engineering, he said, and towards some sort of 'organic structure' that is fluid and integrated into the market - while at the same time vigorously encouraging individuality.

I will admit that I'm not sure what Mr Silverman means by 'the difficult work of cultural knowledge' but I sense that he's right on target - and that is something Miuccia Prada would understand.

In fact, he and the others lead me to worry - and worry a lot - about almost all the new management 'stuff' - re-engineering, horizontal organisations, data-based marketing and so on. While all are profoundly important antidotes to the excesses of industrial-age hierarchical structures, I can readily imagine Miuccia Prada going into hysterics over such notions.

Within them lurks a new sterility. 'Horizontal' sterility instead of 'vertical' sterility? Maybe. But sterility, no matter how you cut it.

In explaining the secret to success of Ben Bradlee, the legendary Washington Post editor - and his habit of breaking the mould - reporter Roger Rosenblatt writes: 'Twelve is about Ben's real age.'

Bradlee even admitted to 'compulsive spontaneousness' and 'advanced immaturity'.

In a market groaning under the weight of uninspiring products and services, perhaps we need to scrap the latest management fads and simply go out in search of compulsives who promise they won't grow up.

The next time a job candidate dozes off during an interview, wake him up and hire him. After all it was you who put him to sleep.

TPG Communications