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Turbulence rules: Tom Peters on excellence

FIRST IBM teaches us to get closer to our customers. Then its customers change (from mainframes to PCs and workstations) and Big Blue is left holding the bag - and 200,000 surplus employees. So much for close to the customer.

Another hot management strategy is focusing on core competencies (skills, not products), but in a new book, Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation, Jim Utterback of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers irrefutable evidence that most leading companies 'follow their core technologies into obsolescence and obscurity'.

These days, even good news is a mixed blessing. 'At a time when Sara Lee is strong and on course for another record year,' John Bryan, the chairman, said recently, 'we must intensify our focus on . . . building worldwide brands and strengthening our ties to consumers.' The occasion of his happy declaration? The announcement of more than 8,000 layoffs.

Sometimes I worry that I don't know my left foot from my right. There is nothing I believe for sure. Then I chuckle. Of course I don't know anything for sure.

The best managers understand. They don't over-analyse. Mostly they throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. David Glass, chief executive of Wal-Mart, told me that the greatest strength of the company's founder, Sam Walton, was fearlessness. He would botch something embarrassingly, then come in the next day ready to go with something else.

Richard Branson of Virgin Group was described in Newsweek as 'easily bored and unreflective' with 'unbounded curiosity' and a hatred of negativity. Branson is a doer who has 'no guiding corporate strategy,' the magazine said. He admits as much, saying: 'Fun should be a motivator for all businesses.' Then he adds: 'With many companies we start, we don't even do the figures in advance. We just feel there's room in the market.'

Ed McCracken, head of Silicon Graphics, scoffs at the idea of formal planning. 'When we finish one product development programme, we raise our heads and look around to see what to invent next,' he told the Harvard Business Review. 'We try to get a sense of what customers might want . . . Then we put our heads down, engineer like mad, and get the product into the marketplace. (Then) we do it all over again.'

McCracken added that he couldn't care less if his latest product ousts his current star. Better that Silicon Graphics knock off one of its own than someone else's.

That story repeats itself in the world of retailing. Paul Van Vlissingen, chairman of the dollars 10bn Dutch firm SNV, says: 'Once we have appointed our managers, we let them reinvent the wheel . . . The world is changing so fast you'll always be needing different wheels for changing terrain.'

Van Vlissingen dismisses the idea of a uniform corporate culture, as did Wally Sterling, former Stanford University president generally credited with lifting the institution to the top ranks of education and research. Asked by a student what Stanford's philosophy was, Sterling responded: 'My philosophy is not to develop a philosophy of education, but instead to try to find the best possible faculty. Then upgrade the breadth and variety of students and provide needed physical plant. And then sit back and see what results.'

Toss a match into a mix of volatile ingredients and watch what happens. Bravo, says the Economist which recently proclaimed: 'Economic growth stems from corporate turbulence, not stagnation.'

Kevin Kelly, in Out of Control: the Rise of Neo-Biological Civilisation, writes: 'Equilibrium is death . . . Seek persistent disequilibrium.'

Jack Welch, chairman of GE, puts all this in personal terms: 'Are you regenerating? Are you dealing with new things? When you find yourself in a new environment, do you come up with a fundamentally different approach? That is the test. When you flunk - you leave.'

The subject of Welch's queries? Welch himself.

The search for eternal verities? Mostly rubbish. To accomplish anything in an untidy world, your product development team must believe to its marrow that this is the product to end all products. Truth is, the real key to success is detaching yourself from today's baby the moment it leaves the door. Let it go. Forget it and grasp for the next brass ring with childlike single-mindedness.

Life is pretty simple: you do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is in the doing something else. You must take pot shots at today's star before you are copied.

Today's radiantly blooming flowers are tomorrow's mulch. Don't forget that for a moment. But don't think about it too long, either.

Copyright TPG Communications