Too wired for daydreaming: Tom Peters On excellence

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The Independent Online
WHEN Harriet Donnelly is on a business trip, she religiously carts along her NCR Safari 3170 notebook computer, her SkyWord alphanumeric pager and her AT&T cellular phone. She told Fortune magazine (in 'The Wired Executive') that after a day of meetings: 'The first thing I do when I get back to my hotel is . . . return any messages I can, using voice mail. Next I plug my computer into the telephone and download (my) e-mail . . . I also get messages on my pager.'

Ms Donnelly is a consumer products executive at AT&T. She's obviously comfortable whizzing down the information highway. Who am I to throw stones? But throw I shall. Surely there's more to business than frenzied patrols through cyberspace. Thinking, for example. So why doesn't she check in and take a nap? That's what Thomas Edison regularly did when his imagination needed a jolt.

Better yet, why doesn't she dig a tunnel? That, apparently, is the trick used by Seymour Cray, the supercomputer pioneer, when he's pondering a problem. (Admittedly, he digs them in his own backyard; it's hard to imagine a Hyatt Regency encouraging a tunnel under its parking lot).

Another computer pioneer, Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, also worries that our new tools are turning us into zombies. In a recent article in Inc. magazine, he lambasted spreadsheets as 'one of the worst things that ever happened to business'.

He went on: 'They teach managers to produce paper, rather than think . . . It becomes too simple to make projections, (too easy) to believe in the numbers on the spreadsheet. That inaccurate picture of reality breeds bad managerial decisions.

'The smartest business people keep a very simple model of their business in their heads. So simple you can meditate on it, modify it, adjust it . . . while lying awake at night, driving in a car, leaning back with your eyes closed on an airplane, or keeping yourself occupied during a dull meeting.'

Rita Dove, US poet laureate, would doubtless second Olsen's musings. 'I want to discuss . . . an activity which, although often smiled at or benevolently dismissed in children, is barely tolerated in adolescence, rarely commended in the boardroom and, to the best of my knowledge, never encouraged in school - but without which no bridges would soar, no light bulbs burn,' she said in a speech at the University of Virginia. 'That activity is daydreaming.'

The mind 'is informed by a spirit of play,' Dove added. 'The most fantastic doodles emerge from wandering ballpoint pens in both the classroom and the board meeting. Every discipline is studded with vivid terminology . . . There are doglegs on golf courses, butterfly valves in automobiles. Every discipline craves imagination.'

Mike Koelker, corporate director of creative development at Foote, Cone and Belding (and responsible for some of the most imaginative Levi's ad campaigns), is a daydreamer. He told Advertising Age that his creative philosophy is simple: 'Make it different. Make it beautiful. That's it.'

The contrast between robots and renegades also comes through in Koelker's savvy reflections on his 25 years in the ad business. 'I've learned to predict the future,' he said. 'Anyone who comes to see you more than once every two years to discuss his or her career path probably doesn't have one. (And) I know that, without exception, the people in the acount group and the creative department who I find the most brilliant will have the hardest time fitting into, and being accepted by, the agency structure. (Which is not to criticise the notion of structure: it helps us know where our offices are . . . it makes sure the lights are turned on, and that the toilets flush. Beyond that, it is hardly worth deifying.)'

Abe Zaleznik, the leadership guru and Harvard emeritus professor, makes a distinction between managers and leaders that echoes Koelker's observations. Managers believe order and process are the keys to success, he told Tom Kelly of CIO magazine. Control is their Holy Grail. Alternatively, leaders cherish disequilibrium, vigorously champion their visions, take risks, step on toes; they find process, teams and procedures stifling.

Individual, corporate and economic progress turns on a paradox: we are entering the age of value-added, through knowledge. Yet the very tools that carry us along this mind- boggling path seem to preclude the possibility of naps, tunnelling and daydreams - and thereby they shut down the very curiosity that is needed now more than ever.

Who's on first base in your organisation? Nappers, daydreamers, doodlers, meditators, misfits and lovers of disequilibrium? Or go-getters who hit the hotel room and shake with electronic DTs until their laptop is humming, their spreadsheet tidy and their ego stroked by a flood of inbound e-mail?

It is not a trivial or facetious question.

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