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Tom Peters On Excellence: Twenty ways to get it wrong

BUSINESSES do a lot of dumb things. Here are 20: 1) The pursuit of synergy. It rarely works. The proposed Martin Marietta-Lockheed merger? 'A tribute to the absence of imagination on the part of the leaders of the two companies,' a defense industry chief executive told me.

Ditto for media mergers, healthcare mergers. Most are lame excuses for a failure to create genuinely new products, services and markets.

2) Belief in strategic plans. 'A good deal of corporate planning . . . is like a ritual rain dance,' says Brian Quinn of Dartmouth University. 'It has no effect on the weather' and 'much of the advice related to corporate planning is directed at improving the dancing - not the weather.' The best companies let 100 flowers bloom, then pick the winners from among the hardiest sprouts.

3) The more time spent planning, the less time you need to spend on implementation. Almost never the case] Ready. Fire. Aim. That's the approach taken by the businesses I most respect. You don't know where you're headed until you begin to march.

4) Great products will sell themselves. Rubbish] In a market full of contenders, hardball hustling is a must.

5) Great advertising can save mediocre products. Rubbish redux. Pour money into support of great products, says legendary ad man David Ogilvy, but don't waste a dime trying to advertise a ho-hum product into prominence.

6) 'My employer is stupid not to train me.' Well, that is true. But in the end it's up to you to train yourself. The new marketplace will not tolerate atrophied skills.

7) 'Train them and they'll leave.' Sick] It's like saying, 'Treat people decently and they will screw you.'

Treat people with respect, responsibility, big-time training, independence - and you will have a superior workforce.

8) Bring back the good old days. What good old days? The 'coloured' and 'white' toilets that I grew up with?

Autocratic front-line supervisors? Yes. Today's economic conditions set one's head spinning. But there's no way I would trade 1994 for 1954.

9) Bosses should be paid more than those who report to them. Oprah makes more than her producers. Star performers in general should draw star salaries - in information systems, personnel, marketing, research. Obvious, eh?

10) Do it right the first time. This is a candidate for dumbest statement ever uttered. You don't do anything new or interesting right the first time.

11) Don't make the same mistake twice. Perhaps the second dumbest statement.

In pursuit of significant improvement, we make the same mistakes over and over. 'If people never did silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.' - Ludwig Wittgenstein. Now that's more like it.

12) Business is serious stuff. Hogwash. Business is a part of the human circus. It's about reckless tries and unbridled passion. 'Lighten up for profits' - how about that for a corporate slogan?

13) Total quality management should be the umbrella for all improvement efforts. I'm all for things that work, but how about 'nifty' things that work? If there's a single 'it' in business, it's innovation, not TQM.

14) Market research is a must. How about must-not?

'The customer is a rear view mirror,' says George Colony of Forrester Research, 'not a guide to the future.'

The age of market research has coincided with an onslaught of look-alike products.

15) People don't want change. Humankind has two basic and equally strong needs: stability and change. The issue is not either-or; it's creating a context in which pursuing the novel is cherished, not scorned.

16) 'They can't handle change.' Of course they can. They do from 5pm to 9am.

It's the 9 to 5 part I worry about, when bosses think for them.

17) The average person is not creative. But the average person is creative.

Again, just look at their off-hours activities.

18) Job descriptions and organisation charts are essential road maps.

Nonsense. Job descriptions are 'no' guides - don't do this, don't go there.

Organisation charts suggest hard wiring in a world that demands fluidity.

19) Regulation is a nuisance. True, but most things regulated in the workplace offer first-class opportunities. The disabled make fabulous employees. Safety breeds quality. Environmentally clean operations attract top workers. It's too bad that we need to legislate such stuff.

20) Foreigners don't play fair. Sure, others do a number on us from time to time - as we do to them (America's markets are hardly barrier-free). But, mostly, those who try to cheat us end up cheating themselves. Open markets add to local competitiveness. Just ask Detroit.

TPG Communications