To achieve real renewal, being naive is an asset

ON EXCELLENCE

October 10, 1994|By TOM PETERS

Companies go into tailspins, failing to fathom that things have changed dramatically. Examples? Kodak, American Express, IBM, Westinghouse, GM, Sears, maybe Disney -- and, someday, even Wal-Mart.

It's true that corporate culture does bind, especially -- and ironically -- in proud firms with long records of success (note the ,, list above). But there's more to it. Dig deeper and "culture" is the sum of individuals -- particularly individuals in positions of responsibility (not just CEOs and VPs, but hundreds, perhaps thousands, of managers). So it's not just some amorphous "they" or mindless corporation that gets stuck. It is, to be blunt, thee and me.

(Stop. Consider exactly what you'll do at work today: How fundamentally different will that be from what you did six months ago? A year ago? Write down your four biggest accomplishments of the past six months. Do they amount to at least the beginning of a significant change of direction? Be very honest. Your professional life could depend on the answers you give.)

Which brings me to what I call the Little "R" vs. Big "R" gulf. The "R" stands for renewal; more precisely, personal renewal. No topic is more important.

Little R renewal we understand. It's constant improvement: a steady diet of reading, seminar-going (even weeklong seminars), three-week vacations, regular customer visits, etc. These are not things that everyone does (far from it) and, therefore, to be

commended.

But such activities are a far cry from the Big R. Big R really wakes you and shakes you, profoundly alters a career, dramatically shifts perspectives, and fends off staleness that most of us don't see overtaking us. (And staleness always does, quicker than most of us are willing to acknowledge.) Big R ideas include:

* Taking a six-month sabbatical, learning something completely new.

* Better yet, spending a year working in the inner city or Third World.

* Signing up for two years in the Peace Corps, age 38 or 58 (yes, they take 58-year-olds).

* Grabbing a three-year lateral assignment/demotion to a geographic or vocational area totally foreign to you. (Yes, do interrupt a fast-track career at age 34 for this.)

* Upping the tempo of a major hobby (photography, gardening, woodworking, painting) to achieve excellence at something other than your chief professional pursuit.

* Earning a degree in a new area.

* Making a major commitment to handwork or outdoor labor.

* Taking off two hours in the middle of the day, at least twice a week, to do whatever (as long as it is contrary to your normal professional discipline).

* Seeking out new friends who have interests that are, by and large, antithetical to yours, then hanging out with them, working on projects with them.

* Quitting a good job, with nothing in particular in mind for a next step (i.e., drift for six months to a year).

But I'm not rich, you rejoin. Or, I've got two kids to support.

Yes, I know. What I'm suggesting isn't easy. You probably can't "afford" to do the more drastic things on the list. But can you afford not to? Do you have the moxie to at least consider a radical restructuring of your affairs (which could end up refreshing your family, rather than punishing it)?

In record numbers, CEOs, senior managers, middle managers and front-line employees are getting sacked, gulping pills, screwing up families, abusing colleagues and, basically, resisting fundamental change -- because they "can't afford" the sort of disruptive suggestions I've offered here. Believe me, Little R renewal is simply not enough these days.

The underpinning for this uncompromising screed is the frightening fact that virtually all leaps forward -- and in today's world we all need to be in the leaping business -- are made by people who are naive, who literally don't understand "the rules" or the "way things have always been done." Objective No. 1, then, for the perpetual self-renewer is to attempt to be naive again, and again, to learn to look at the world with some of the dewy-eyed innocence normally reserved for 4-year-olds. Fact: You can only look at "things" through naive eyes when you are, well, naive.

OK, let me come clean. I am simply stunned by the depth of the ruts I find myself in. I think I am fresh. I am not.

Am I getting through? Do you still think my Big R list is outrageous? Please don't answer in haste.

Tom Peters is a syndicated columnist. Write to him at Tribune Media Services Inc., Suite 1500, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611; (800) 245-6536

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