We've put paranoia on a pedestal and now we can't relax

MUCH fun is frequently made of consultants' claims that the future is coming faster than ever before. This is part of people's thinking that the generation they are in is always the most dynamic, pressured, or whatever, it is suggested.

But in one sense at least, the 1990s commentators are right. Things these days have the capacity to go wrong much more quickly and dramatically than ever before. One only has to look at the troubles of such retailers as J Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer.

Things can also go right of course, as various fast-growing internet- related stocks demonstrate.

But this is scary stuff. So scary that it makes paranoia the way of the business world.

Indeed, if you are a hard-pressed manager and somebody like Andy Grove, at the time heading Intel, comes along with a book called Only The Paranoid Survive ,it must be a little disconcerting.

Mr Grove is an engaging writer and an even more convincing speaker, able like few others to make being in business sound like an exciting adventure. But by making it apparent that this is an ultra-competitive activity totally inappro- priate for the faint hearted, he and others, notably Tom Peters, have given a whole generation of managers the idea that they must constantly behave as if they are in the early days of a start-up.

Time was when there were a few frenetic organisations that could steal a competitive advantage by being more aggressive than the pack. But there was still room for the slower-paced and more relaxed organisations to make a living.

In recent years, though, it seems as if the bar has been raised. Everybody is roaring around without a minute to live, or think.

And because everybody, rather than just a few, is playing aggressively, a company only has to take its eye off the ball for a minute to find itself vulnerable if not in outright danger.

Accordingly, when a Sainsbury's or a Marks & Spencer seemingly loses it way, there is little crowing among rivals. In this mood of paranoia such events only reinforce the conviction that they cannot relax and that if they do not continue to battle hard they will be next.

This is not so bad on its own. Indeed, those consultants who are so excited about the "fast approaching" future would doubtless rave about such dynamism. But there is a cost to this. Though we all use machines these days, we have not yet turned into them. As a result, it is nearly impossible to keep up this hard-driving attitude for ever.

And though organisations can go some way towards countering this problem by constantly recruiting new staff, they would do well to ponder whether this is a cause of those sudden drops in performance that seem to be all too commonplace today.