Skill is fine, but business must put its heart into it

ON EXCELLENCE

August 09, 1993|By TOM PETERS

Say "business" and you probably imagine columns of figures marching in close-order drill across a computer screen. Yuck.

"To embrace accuracy as the ultimate goal of truth, in any sphere, does appeal to the part of us that pleasures in mastery -- and being able to color within the lines," Mindy Aloff writes in "Beautiful Theories" (Atlantic Monthly, July 1993). "This mastery is crucial to human development . . . but it is not as freeing as the notion of playfulness -- of improvisation -- for which one has to throw away the coloring books and begin with a blank page, a ready hand, and an open mind."

Accuracy is not beauty. Nor, says Aloff, is it perfection or even elegance. "The beauty of (choreographer George Balanchine's) Symphonie Concertante," she continues, "must be nourished daily by the dancers' own desire to be more -- more lengthened out, more musically precise, more willing to take risks, more determined not to settle for the sort of 'perfection' that reduces to mere congruence between the lines of their bodies and static mental images. . . . They must find a way to be hungry, to crave. To remain a perennial, the ballet must be steeped in some kind of psychic soil. Without that . . . the beauty of 'Symphonie Concertante' is no more than elegance."

Playfulness, improvisation, desire, hunger, craving are elements of beauty. And pain.

"There are two kinds of singers," Luciano Pavarotti told an interviewer from the New Yorker. "One who is doing everything very easily. The top note for him is like a -- peanut! He just picks it off! And then there are the singers who have a little trouble with the top note, but they give you their heart . . . The first kind comes out of the schools and they have all the pyrotechnics. So? So? I think you need a little effort.

A cry. Pain. Something in there to make you think it is true -- to the singer and to the audience."

Oddly enough, novelist John le Carre makes the same point in his latest potboiler, "The Night Manager." The hero, Jonathan Pine, must decide whether to cast his lot with Burr, a British intelligence operative. His answer is yes: "Burr was from the heart, which was his saving. He might be clever. He might have mastered the grammar of intrigue. . . . But the heart still led . . . which was why Burr's sense of mission was beginning to throb like a war drum in Jonathan's ear."

So what's all this have to do with Oldsmobiles, Wheaties and competitiveness? Our store shelves groan under the weight of new products. But few have heart. Service offerings are about as lifeless. Most hotels, for example, have spent the last decade buffing their customer service. The mechanics are better. Bravo. But the heart is usually absent: the sincere sense of "Welcome to my home" as opposed to "I've gotta remember to act like I care" (e.g., rip the guest's suitcase out of his hand as he alights from the cab).

The July issue of Vanity Fair dissected the success of Barney's, the stylish Manhattan haber--ery. "They're fearless -- the daring of their buying," gasped one of the fashion world's cognoscenti. Add fearlessness to the list of qualities that demark winners (or at least exciting losers) in the arts, sports, venture capital,

microprocessors and retailing.

Nintendo gets it. "What should I make?" game designer Gunpei Yokoi asked his boss. "Something great," CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi replied.

I was so struck by that exchange from David Sheff's book, "Game Over," that I asked several hundred seminar participants in Frankfurt and London if any boss had ever said such a thing to them. (Or if they'd ever said that to their underlings.) Not a hand went up. I suspect the result would have been the same in Chicago or Hollywood.

Pursue greatness -- what a motivator! And a universal one. How about "Make something great" as the motto of the hotel's housekeeping staff? It makes sense to me -- but, then, I believed McDonald's founder Ray Kroc when he said he could "see the beauty in a hamburger bun."

Unfortunately, most corporations -- in housekeeping and R&D alike -- honor beauty, heart, hunger, craving, daring and fearlessness in the breach. The office reception area is dull. So is the marketing department. And the lab.

No wonder the products and services are dull, too. Of course, brave and beautiful things must work in the real world. But Einstein is not remembered for his accuracy (he left the vetting of his theories to lesser lights), any more than a great actress is remembered for not flubbing her lines (though she'd better not). He and she are lionized for the trembling beauty of their performances.

How about it! Can you imagine building a corporation around the idea of beauty? Next week, with more bravado than good sense, I'll try to get you started.

(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; [407] 420-8200.)

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