Life in the rubble of a pyramid: Tom Peters On excellence

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The Independent Online
WHEN I worked for McKinsey & Co, our consulting reports followed the pyramid style of writing. At the apex was the grand conclusion, such as: 'Moving away from mainframes makes sense for XYZ Computers.' The pyramid's base was a carefully constructed framework of supporting propositions, eg, 'Technological change is shifting computational power to the desktop.'

A well-crafted presentation was a marvel to behold. The client was carefully led down a fact-lined path to the flawless business strategy. The masterful case of the writer-presenter would be so airtight that the brightest client executive would be hard pressed to find a question worth asking.

I exaggerate, of course. But only a bit when it comes to the top presenters in whose long shadows I once stood.

Although I had a successful sojourn at McKinsey, I never mastered the corporate style. My attempts at pyramid building usually ended up producing piles of scattered rocks and pebbles. I was continually accused of circular reasoning, and even my circles had gaps.

Then, in 1978, I found a kindred spirit in Bob Waterman, with whom I subsequently co- authored In Search of Excellence. We were both engineers by training - and disposition, or we wouldn't have been at McKinsey in the first place. But Bob enjoyed painting as much as consulting. And I thought curling up with good circular fiction was far more pleasurable than perusing the wooden analyses in the latest management journals. Moreover, Bob and I often observed a Grand Canyon between the icy clarity of the strategies we concocted and the halting execution of those strategies by our worldly clients.

The client may have nodded at our inexorable river of logic until he was in need of chiropractic help, but when he left the boardroom he'd be distracted by another earthly problem that had arisen in the two hours he was away from his desk.

Our book, although linear by the standards of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, looked beyond brilliant strategies to some rather homely tactics: for example 'a bias for action', the first of eight disconnected principles we teased from our research. Looking back, we got some stuff right and we got some stuff wrong. But for me, one thing became clear: the mess is the message. Moreover, mess as message contains lessons for managers.

'Much of the messiness in American life,' wrote essayist George Will, 'is not mere inefficiency, it is yeastiness. It is creative fermentation.' In The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines plan as a transitive verb, 'to bother about the best method of accomplishing an accidental result'. Mess, accident, fermentation and yeast. Hardly the raw materials of pyramids. But are they the basis for a sound business strategy? You bet.

FA Hayek, Nobel laureate in economics, calls competition a 'discovery procedure . . . valuable only because its results are unpredictable and . . . different from those which anyone has, or could have, deliberately aimed at.' Harry Quadracci, chief executive of Quad Graphics, the printer, understands.

'People think the president has to be the main organiser,' he told me. 'No, the president is the main dis-organiser.

'Everybody 'manages' quite well: whenever anything goes wrong, they take immediate action to make sure nothing will go wrong again. The problem is that nothing new will ever happen, either.' (Quadracci also propounds what he labels the 'Ready, Fire, Aim' school of business strategy).

George Bennett of the Symmetrix consultancy sings from about the same page of the hymnal. 'The secret of successful change seems to be self-inflicted catastrophe. The idea is to build a greenhouse in which to nurture the new order . . . break the rules and invent the future. The greenhouse is then encouraged to cannibalise the customer base and staff of the old organisation.'

In the end, the advice to management is clear:

1) Don't just stand there waiting for the next analysis. Do something.

2) Create a context in which lots of loosely connected people don't just stand there, but do lots of loosely connected somethings.

The meetings leading to the US Declaration of Independence were held in a hall near a stable that invariably swarmed with flies. Thomas Jefferson said that the men, dressed in the short breeches of the day, swatted distractedly as they considered the fate of a would-be nation. The fly problem became so fierce, Jefferson is said to have told a friend, with a chuckle, that the signers glossed over many issues and hurriedly affixed their names to the momentous document in order to escape the building.

The buzz of a fly changes the course of civilisation. The novelist Pynchon would nod. Business strategists would choke. Pyramids, anyone?

TPG Communications 1994