Key to business success isn't always by the book

ON EXCELLENCE

April 11, 1994|By TOM PETERS

Pay attention to the market. Listen to your customers. Spend megabucks collecting customer information, to the point that you can treat even mass-market customers as individual "market segments."

Not only are these the trendy ideas of the past decade, but their proponents (myself sometimes among them) are getting louder and louder.

Why, then, was I so taken with -- and so disturbed by -- the story of Milanese clothing and accessories designer Miuccia Prada, profiled by Ingrid Sischy in The New Yorker?

Market research? Intensive data collection? Forget it. Prada, says Sischy, climbed to the pinnacle of the fashion world by listening to her inner voice.

"The clothes seemed to have something extra to them -- or, rather, in them," Sischy writes. "They suggested that someone, not something, had caused them to be." Sischy adds that Prada's "imagination is a huge part of who she is, of how she does her work. . . . Her clothes are driven by her own feelings and by her sharp sense of where we are in the world."

But even Prada has blown it from time to time. "She used conventional, Seventh Avenue solutions," Sischy concludes of Prada's dubious 1989 collection. "The clothes were overdesigned, and it seemed that commercial considerations and self-consciousness, not the usual articulation of her unconscious, were leading her."

Prada summed up the pratfall: "I hated all the people around me, and I told them it was the last time others would push me to do what I didn't want."

Prada's tale may well be the nub of most smashing successes in business, and in life. Nintendo game designer Sigeru Miyamoto, creator of the Super Mario Brothers, dismisses his customers altogether. "I am not creating a game," he told David Sheff, author of "Game Over." "I am in the game. The game is not for children, it is for me."

Chuck Williams, founder of high-end cookware cataloger-retailer Williams-Sonoma, would seem to agree. "I just bought what I liked," he says. "I never bought anything that I didn't like. Fortunately, there have been a lot of people out there who like what I like."

In the same vein, reporter Connie Bruck attributed the cable TV success of Time Warner Chairman Steve Ross to "an emotional source. He was a relentless, insatiable consumer."

What does all this add up to? And what does it imply for running a business?

As to the former, it's what I call the difference between doing something "for" the market, and being part "of" the market. "For" firms depend on data collection and manipulation, detached analysis, elaborate market plans, and

planner-designer-marketers versed in the latest B-school techniques. "Of" firms seek out zany employees with out-of-the-ordinary views, nurture a spirit of adventure, cherish instinct and intuition, and dote on things that have never been tried before.

Tom Silverman, founder of upstart Tommy Boy Records, says his firm is in the "lifestyle" business, not the record business. He calls Nike the first company to understand such distinctions, and claims that the lifestyle approach is at the other end of the scale from the "dismal science of market segmentation." Lifestyle marketers, he told Fast Company magazine, must undertake "the difficult work of cultural knowledge." In practical terms, he adds, that translates into something that goes miles beyond self-managing teams and re-engineering -- and toward some sort of "organic structure" that is fluid, integrated into the market, while at the same time vigorously encouraging individuality.

OK, I admit I'm not sure what Silverman means by "the difficult work of cultural knowledge," but I sense that he's right on target, and that Miuccia Prada would understand.

New sterility

In fact, Silverman et al. lead me to worry -- a lot -- about almost all the new management "stuff" -- re-engineering, horizontal organizations, data-based marketing, etc. While all are profoundly important antidotes to the excesses of industrial-age hierarchical structures, I can readily imagine Miuccia Prada going into hysterics over such notions.

Within them lurks a new sterility. "Horizontal" sterility instead of "vertical" sterility? Maybe. But sterility, no matter how you cut it.

In explaining legendary Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee's secret to success, and his habit of breaking the mold, reporter Roger Rosenblatt writes, "Twelve is about Ben's real age." Bradlee even admitted to "compulsive spontaneousness" and "advanced immaturity."

In a market groaning under the weight of uninspiring products and services, perhaps we need to scrap the latest management fads, and simply go out in search of compulsives who promise they won't grow up. The next time a job candidate dozes off during an interview, wake him up and hire him. After all it was you who put him to sleep.

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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