A better goal for achievers: To dream, perchance to sleep

ON EXCELLENCE

January 31, 1994|By TOM PETERS

Harriet Donnelly religiously carts her NCR Safari 3170 notebook computer, SkyWord alphanumeric pager and AT&T cellular phone with her on business trips. After a day of meetings, she told Fortune magazine ("The Wired Executive"): "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 phone and download [my] e-mail. . . . I also get messages on my pager."

Donnelly is a consumer-products executive at AT&T. She's obviously comfortable whizzing down the info highway. Who am I to throw stones?

But throw I shall. Surely there's more to business than frenzied patrols through cyberspace. For example: thinking. So why doesn't Ms. Donnelly 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 supercomputer pioneer Seymour Cray's trick when he's pondering a thorny problem. (Admittedly, he digs them in his own backyard; it's hard to imagine the Hyatt Regency encouraging you to tunnel under its parking lot.)

Another computer pioneer, Digital Equipment Corp.'s founder, Ken Olsen, also worries that our new tools are turning us into zombies. In a recent article in Inc. magazine, he criticizes spreadsheets as "one of the worst things that ever happened to business. . . . They teach managers to produce paper rather than think. . . . It becomes too simple to make projections, and [too easy] to believe in the numbers a spreadsheet contains. . . . That inaccurate picture of reality breeds bad managerial decisions."

Instead of depending on spreadsheets, Olsen continues, "The smartest businesspeople keep a very simple model of their business in their heads . . . so simple you can meditate on it, modify it, adjust it . . . while laying awake at night, driving in a car, leaning back with your eyes closed on an airplane, or keeping yourself occupied during a dull meeting."

U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove 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 and butterfly valves in automobiles. . . . Every discipline craves imagination."

Mike Koelker, corporate director of creative development at Foote, Cone & Belding (and responsible for some of Levi Strauss' most imaginative 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 swirl of the ad business.

"I've learned to predict the future," he contends. "Anyone who comes to see you more than once every two years to discuss their 'career paths' probably doesn't have one. [And] I know that -- without exception -- the people in the account 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 criticize the notion of structure. It helps us know where our offices are. . . . It makes sure the lights are turned on and the toilets flush. Beyond that, it's hardly worth deifying.)"

Abe Zaleznik, the leadership guru and Harvard School emeritus professor, makes a distinction between managers and leaders that echoes Koelker's observations. Managers believe that order and process are the keys to success, he told CIO magazine's Tom Keily. 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 turn 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, tunneling and daydreams -- and thereby shut down the very curiosity that's needed now more than ever. Another poet, Donald Hall, sums it up: "Information is the enemy of intelligence."

Who's on first in your organization? 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 tidied, and their ego stroked by a flood of inbound e-mail? It's no trivial, or facetious, question.

(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; [407] 420-6200.)

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