Crescendo to change: Tom Peters On Excellence

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The Independent Online
IN CELEBRATION last week of my 500th newspaper column, I offered my first half-dozen bedrock beliefs. Now the rest:

The past is mellow prelude. The Japanese have been - and remain - formidable competitors. They have taught us much in the past 15 years. The Germans have passed along superb lessons as well.

And we haven't done badly ourselves. We have listened to them; they have listened to us.

But make no mistake, the economies of Japan and Germany are very much like the US economy: they are mature, aging, and targeted for about 3 per cent annual growth.

Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, China, India, Indonesia, Thailand. Sure, these nations (especially, perhaps, China) will experience big downs along with their bigger ups. But add it all up and the next 15 years will make the past 15 years look like small change.

Yes, it means competition from dirt-cheap labour in some cases. (And those bargain-wage workers are producing quality goods, not junk.)

But it also means hundreds of millions of folks racing into the middle class, in hot pursuit of innovative US, German and Japanese goods and services.

Remember Joseph Schumpeter. The great economist explained that progress comes via 'gales of creative destruction.'

As we confront the madcap times, our success will mostly be a function of our ability to embrace dislocation, pain and ambiguity (uncertainty's big brother).

It's true for the overall economy, for tiny, midsized and massive companies - as well as for individuals.

Not just bobbles, but bold botches. I've long preached the value of failure. (It's the way we learn to ride bikes, master new software and export to Japan.) But a miscue here and there is no longer adequate. We must comprehend that giant blunders automatically accompany the leaps into the unknown that are needed to thrive (survive) in these turbulent times. Bottom line: measure progress by your scorecard of big flubs.

Innovation R Us - or it better be. The continuous improvement, re-engineering, total quality, empowerment and customer service 'movements' have each boosted American competitiveness. But they, too, are quiet prelude to the Age of Innovation. The order of the day is perpetual reinvention and revolution, constant re-creation, continuous curiosity, wild plunges into the abyss.

We will only stay close to the top of the New World Order if we stay fresh.

Beware rotten cores. Core competencies decay. IBM's soaring values of a decade ago become millstones. So, too, the prime virtues, now vices, at almost half the Fortune 500. companies. The strengths of yesterday are today's weaknesses. We cannot afford to let anything get locked in concrete, or mired in mud.

Structure begets strategy. Many years ago, Pulitzer Prize winner Alfred Chandler, the business historian, told us that structure follows strategy. Wrong. At least, wrong today.

Structure determines strategy is more like it. 'The most exciting developments,' says Sir Douglas Hague, dean of Oxford Business School, 'will be (when) human brains work out radically new ways of . . . solving problems, running organisations and transmitting knowledge.' Lesson: There is no greater business priority than implementing exciting new organisational schemes.

The customer is always right - sometimes. In an increasingly crowded marketplace, too many products and services look alike. In prelaunch market research, Renault found that its new Twingo car was 'actively disliked' by 40 per cent of would-be buyers, according to the Financial Times. But 10 per cent were said to love it.

Renault's top designer prevailed upon higher-ups to listen to the 10 per cent, ignore the 40 per cent, and launch. Today it is the second-best-selling car in France.

How many execs would have chickened out in the face of active dislike on the part of two out of five of the market? Many? Most? Almost all?

It's design, stupid. The look, feel, taste, smell and usability of products (and services) may be the best way to distinguish them from competitors' offerings. Yet far too few companies put design even near the top of the strategy pyramid. Big mistake. Opportunity lost.

Zest demands zest. The times are zesty. No one disagrees, Our organisations? Too dull by half (at least).

Is your place of work as energetic, irreverent and playful as the times require? Don't ask me. I've made plenty of mistakes in the past 10 years. And contrary to the popular image that I come from the Far Side, they have invariably been errors of conservatism. Time and again I've underestimated the magnitude of the change that is buffeting us.

I suspect I'll continue to make such errors of underestimation. So, don't ask me - do something.

TPG Communications