In zesty times, blunders are better than blandness

ON EXCELLENCE

September 05, 1994|By TOM PETERS

Last week, in celebration of my 500th column, I offered my first half-dozen bedrock beliefs. Now the rest:

* The past is mellow prelude.

The Japanese have been -- and remain -- formidable competitors. They've taught us much in the past 15 years. The Germans have passed along superb lessons as well.

And we haven't done badly ourselves: We've listened to them; they've listened to us. But make no mistake, the Japanese and German economies are like ours: aging, mature and targeted for about 3 percent annual growth.

Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, China, India, Indonesia, Thailand.

Sure, these nations (especially, perhaps, China) will experience big downs along with their bigger ups. But add it up and the next 15 years will make the past 15 look like small change.

Yes, it means competition from dirt-cheap labor in some cases. (And those bargain-wage workers are producing quality goods, not junk.)

But it also means hundreds of millions of folks racing into the middle class in hot pursuit of innovative U.S., German and Japanese goods and services.

* Remember Joseph Schumpeter.

The great economist explained that progress comes via "gales of creative destruction."

As we confront the madcap times, our success will mostly be a function of our ability to embrace dislocation, pain and ambiguity (uncertainty's big brother). It's true for the overall economy, for tiny, midsized and huge companies and for individuals.

* Not just bobbles, but bold botches.

I've long preached the value of failure. (It's the way we learn to ride bikes, master new software and export to Japan.)

But a miscue here and there is no longer adequate. We must comprehend that giant blunders automatically accompany the brave leaps into the unknown needed to thrive (or even survive) in these turbulent times. Bottom line: Measure progress by your score card of big flubs.

* Innovation R Us -- or it better be.

The continuous improvement, quality, re-engineering, empowerment and customer service "movements" have each boosted American competitiveness. But they, too, are quiet prelude to the Age of Innovation.

The order of the day is perpetual reinvention and revolution, constant re-creation, continuous curiosity, wild plunges into the abyss. We will only stay close to the top of the New World Order if we stay fresh.

* Beware rotten cores.

Core competencies decay. Fast. IBM's soaring values of a decade ago become millstones. So, too, the prime virtues, now vices, at almost half the Fortune 500. Yesterday's strengths are today's weaknesses. We cannot afford to let anything get locked in concrete, or even mired in mud.

* Structure begets strategy.

Structure follows strategy, Pulitzer Prize-winning business historian Alfred Chandler told us many years ago. Wrong. Or, at least, wrong these days.

"Structure determines strategy" is more like it. "The most exciting developments," says Oxford Business School dean Sir Douglas Hague, "will be [when] human brains work out radically new ways of . . . solving problems, running organizations and transmitting knowledge."

Lesson: There is no greater business priority than implementing exciting new organizational schemes.

* The customer is always right -- sometimes.

In an increasingly crowded marketplace, too many products and services look alike.

In prelaunch market research, Renault's new Twingo was "actively disliked" by 40 percent of would-be buyers, the Financial Times reported; but 10 percent were said to "fall in love" with it.

Renault's top designer prevailed upon higher-ups to listen to the 10 percent, ignore the 40 percent -- and launch the product. Today the Twingo is the second-best-selling automobile in France.

How many execs you know would have chickened out in the face of active dislike on the part of two-fifths of the market? Choose one: Many? Most? Almost all?

* It's design, stupid.

The look, feel, taste, smell and usability of products (and services) may be the best way to distinguish them from competitors' offerings. Yet far too few companies put design even near the top of the strategy pyramid -- big mistake, big opportunity lost.

* Zest demands zest.

The times are zesty. No one disagrees. Our organizations? Too dull by half (at least). Is your place of work as energetic, irreverent and playful as the times require?

* Don't ask me!

I've made plenty of mistakes in the past 10 years. And contrary to the popular image that I come from the Far Side, they have invariably been errors of conservatism. Time and again I've underestimated the magnitude of the change that is buffeting us.

I suspect I'll continue to make such errors of underestimation. That is, don't ask me. Do something!

Tom Peters' column is a syndicated columnist. Write to him at Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; (407) 420-8200.

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