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Re-imagine! Business excellence in a disruptive age

Book cover

by Tom Peters, Dorling Kindersley, 2003.

Abstract

Tom Peter’s 25 "rants" challenge continuous improvement and companies "built to last" in favour of continuous revolution. He suggests "professional service firms" (PSF) should replace departments and overheads. Barriers must be shattered; power must be seized, not awaited. The book ends with 50 ways of how leaders can pursue excellence.

(Reviewed by Edgar Wille in January 2004)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

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Ranting Tom

This book is not an objective academic study. Tom Peters begins his foreword with the heading "I’m Mad as Hell" and heads the first part of each of his 25 chapters with a sub heading "Rant". He does do just that; he screams at us for our failure to wake up to the kind of world in which we live. If we remain asleep it won’t be for lack of effort on his part. I must admit that the style of the book put me off initially, but reading it in detail made me realise that it wasn't all rant and derision of worn out business behaviour. I was at first concerned whether it was the kind of book which might stir up a sense that all is not well, without giving practical help to hard pressed managers and leaders. But as I proceeded I found there were plenty of ideas which could be adopted or adapted to the long term and daily life of many a company.

His "overall rant" is that people "like to get things done. To be of service to others. But they’re thwarted at every step of the way by absurd organisational barriers and by the egos of petty tyrants (be they corporate middle managers, or army colonels or school superintendents)". He declares that he loves business at its best, "when it aims to foster growth and deliver exciting services to clients and exciting opportunities to its employees." He does not wear rose tinted spectacles which stop him from seeing the hard realities, but he says he is optimistic - but not expecting "that human beings will become more benign, or that evil will evaporate, or that greed will be regulated out of existence." But being "mad as hell" he had to write this book.

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Military parallels

The introduction is largely devoted to the aftermath of 9/11, and uses America’s unpreparedness for a totally new phenomena, to illustrate the failure of organisations which were invented and grew up in an different era. He cites how many companies have similarly allowed new companies with new attitudes to creep up on them and take them unawares. He makes a parallel between the new kind of business and the new fluid terrorist enemy, unburdened by fixed borders, headquarters or conventional forces, which cannot be attacked in a traditional battle. Thus strategy, tactics, weapons, command structure and the personal responsibility of the individual soldier, have all had to change. There is a counterpart in civilian business.

Similarly, In a fluid world, the old rules of business no longer apply. In the past the aim has been to avoid failure at all costs, clinging to ideals like order and efficiency. But, he says, "we must embrace failure; we must glory in the very murk and muck and mess that yield true innovation". All bets are off in the world which is emerging. The old rules of gradual improvement are like "paving the cow paths".

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Continuous improvement versus revolution

Of course Tom Peters presents things in black and white; he does not deal in grey. So he espouses revolution and despises the steady incremental approach. Some will say there is room for both in varying situations. It was this one sidedness which worried me initially. But the path of gradualism has plenty of reasonable advocates. Peters obviously believes we need rather to be brought to a clear understanding of the dangers facing us, that a gentle approach will not banish. We are in a world in which business cycles have come down from years to a few months in fields such as the software which now pervades corporate life.

We now have to make up the rules as we go along. Previously we faced uncertainty as to what answers we would get to our questions. Now we face ambiguity, because we often don’t know what questions to ask. Right from the start of the book he tells us that we can forget five year strategic plans. We are lucky if a five week one makes any sense. Continuous improvement in our processes has been shown as inadequate even in Japan, the Land of Kaizen. He paints a picture of an entirely new game, where we cannot even define what "better" means, of a situation where sustainable competitive advantage is a fiction, before the force of hyper competition. The word sustainable no longer means anything in face of a battle where old chivalries have ceased. Our competitive advantage will always be under attack. (Of course there are people who talk of co-opetition, and later in the book Peters has room for supply chain cooperation and networking).

Life is messy. We are invited to "revel in the mess, because the mess has a message". (I am not reproducing all the large red lettering with which such statements appear in the book.) More of like ilk: "The secret to success is failure. The secret to fast success is fast failure. The secret to big success is big failure. It is failure, not success, that makes the world go round, because failure typically means that someone has stretched beyond the comfort zone and tried something new and screwed it up, and learned something valuable along the way."

Tom Peters attacks the concept behind the book Built to Last by Collins and Porras. He was a colleague of theirs at Stanford. And so feels free to speak frankly of them. He finds the idea of "built to last" offensive. He calls their idea of some companies having a degree of permanence, "the last refuge of those with shrivelled imaginations", yet he doesn’t hesitate to express admiration later in the book of their concept of BHAGs -"Big Hairy Audacious Goals", which they offer as one of the ways some companies have lasted so well. Continuous improvement he sees as "tinkering".

He applies the word "claptrap" to the view presented by Jim Collins which celebrates "self effacing, quiet reserved, even shy leaders, who bring about big transformations" in Great to Good. Doesn’t Tom Peters realise that there are several ways of skinning a cat? A close look at these praises of permanence does not suggest that these companies were not ready to destroy in order to last.

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Constructive destruction

He moves on to the need for destruction as the right word for our time. We must destroy the structures of yesterday "that have proven inflexible in the face of new and hyper flexible enemies". Dynamism must be embraced rather than stasis and he offers us 20 ways to self destruct, including:
"establish a ‘sell by’ date for every business unit"
"foster tension...not consensus"
"reduce middle management by 90%"
"honour results, not great PowerPoint presentations"
"make sure your Board is sufficiently weird (dull board = dull company)"
"religiously seek out strange customers and strange suppliers".
‘pepper all training programmes with freak instructors".
All 20 support a general approach even if individually one might find some of them going over the top.

Examples are given of the upstarts who have changed their industries and defeated long established names. Among the newcomers, of course, there are Microsoft, Dell, Wal*Mart. Faced by the last mentioned, Sears had to do considerable destruction before they could rebuild. "Destroy" sounds less outrageous when "and rebuild" is added. America destroyed 44million jobs between 1980 and 1998, but created 73m. Net increase 29m. The European Union added 4m and destroyed none, according to Peters’ statistics.

The author quotes Arie de Geus using the example of rose pruning to justify destruction and finishes the chapter on destruction with some slogans like: "Cherish destruction"; "Cherish upstarts"; "Cherish disrespectful colleagues". "Learn to love the word destruction or else become irrelevant" is his message.

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Changes in employment patterns

Having shared his opening general rant Tom Peters has a number of chapters looking at particular aspects of the times we live in and the problems and opportunities they create for business. The first of these is that of people in the new economy, where we must recognise that single employer job security is over.

The author begins his review of the changes in employment patterns with the example of London docks. In 1970 it took 540 man days to unload a timber ship. Containerisation has reduced that to 8 man days, a reduction of 98.5%! The switch to services has taken up much of the employment need; e.g. in USA two thirds of employees are in the service sector, and many of those shown in the manufacturing statistics are in fact service people, accountants, lawyers, purchasing officers, engineers etc.

But what has happened to the blue collar workers is happening to the white collar workers. The outsourcing of work to Ghana, India and a number of Eastern countries, the introduction of just in time working, the tightening of the supply chain, the speeding up of action so that the much fewer pieces of paper don’t stay in trays for days - all these factors are reducing bureaucracy and indeed middle level white collar jobs are being well nigh eliminated. Microchips have replaced many a well paid, busy administrator and reduced the traditional waiting times. Peters, underneath two large red letter headings - "Astounding" - tells us that in 15 years 80% of white collar jobs will have gone. (By his design style Peters contrives to create new sensations about things we already knew, but perhaps until he shouts at us we don’t realise the implications.)

Organisations are becoming disembodied. Compare the tall Sears HQ building in Chicago with the "nondescript nontower" from which Wall*Mart is run and you get some idea of the shape of things to come. And what about the Web? In USA 157million people were using it in March 2002. And so he ends the chapter with a question and a challenge: "Do you fight the change or grab hold and enjoy the ride?" "I say: Enjoy yourself! It’s later than you think!"

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The impact of the Web

The impact of the Web and related technology is then explored. We must re-imagine our business model "so that it is driven - internally and externally - by the Web and the power of Total Connectivity". "The Web = Everything. (Or else.)" The Web reconceives the very definition of your industry; it is the scourge of inefficiency, bureaucracy and missing customer data. It makes you focus on what you do best and "dump the rest".

Openness of data and knowledge flow from and through the Web, but it means that trust is a must, when the whole supply chain is open for all employees to see. Peters points out that whereas the blue collar worker used to be the great opponent of change, it is now often the top people, who fear for the exclusivity of their fiefdoms. Power has been redistributed by the Web. It enables us to dream of what were until recently impossible dreams. Think of how Microsoft, Dell, eBay have reached such heights so quickly. A two page vivid display tells these stories along with Cisco, GE, the new IBM, Oracle and some lesser known ones like Mexican CEMEX, which uses the Web so that when cement would be wasted (as high as 50% of all loads) because sites are not ready, the load can be redirected elsewhere immediately.

Professional experts used to hog their knowledge. Now so much of it is on the Web for all to see, that people can assemble resources for themselves and even choose which countries they will be citizens of, for different purposes; say Malaysia for business incorporation and Netherlands for healthcare. The Web enables businesses to be intertwined with their customers as never before; EZpasses get us through the road toll booths quicker.

Mere smiles for the customer are inadequate. The customer says "I want this now and I want it and not something else". And that’s the bus we must get on in response to "I want the ability to get what I want...NOW!"

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Professional Service Firms (PSF)

Two chapters introduce us to the world of the PSF - Professional Service Firms. We should stop trying to improve interdepartmental efficiency. Rather we should destroy departments which are not adding value and put in their place professional service firms, who have one object in life, to act as primary engines for creative work in specific areas. This waves farewell to cost centres and overheads. If it’s an overhead hand it over to a PSF. Hand Human Resource management over to what he calls the rock stars of talent - the Troubadours of Talent - dedicated to the task of bringing together the talent whose intellectual capital is the source of all value creation and business energy. This is in place of the conventional image of Human Resources as paper pushers, form fillers, no saying staffers.

PSFs can be 100,000 plus person entities, like Accenture or EDS, or one woman accountants, victims of downsizing, working in a spare bedroom, in touch with the whole world. PSFs can take over security for companies, conduct clinical trials for pharmaceutical firms, build prototypes, maintain office equipment, manage call centres, run company travel and transport services, run schools, jails, training, facilities, IT operations, or provide turnkey logistic services, as in DHL, UPS and FedEx. What used to be done in-company, bureaucratically by a cost centre, is now being done on the outside for profit by a PSF (perhaps a subsidiary of a main company). Of course there is little new in all this. We have read about it for many years and seen it in operation for a decade or so, but Peters by shouting at us, may make us give it greater weight in our company strategy and indeed in our national policies for health, education, etc.

What remains of the standard company is a centre of excellence, where departmental heads have become managing partners, with only two jobs: to develop awesome talent (previously done by a general manager) and to bet on and develop a portfolio of awesome projects (previously done by venture capitalist). No longer an overhead!

It starts with a PSF attitude and it can start now. Culture change is not a programme which takes years. It starts right now and lives in the moment. Key to it is that we will put all our efforts on the things which make us special and distinct.

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The goal of customer success

This concentration of companies as PSFs or main companies on what they are excellent at, means that we must get away from" floating around in a sea of sameness". "We must stop being so goddam normal. "This implies that the goals of a company are not to produce goods and services as commodities, but to offer experiences, which make dreams, even those which once seemed impossible, come true. This is their job, with routine activities, including straight manufacturing, outsourced or undertaken by PSFs. In business to business (B2B) the vocabulary has changed from customer satisfaction to customer success as the goal.

Examples are given on the author’s dramatically designed pages. IBM now gets its biggest income from services, and manufactures no computers. Siemens is now the world’s largest application service provider to the health business. United Technologies have gone in their elevator division (OTIS) from selling boxes to peddling integrated building systems. Home Depot offers the bringing together of everything you need to improve and maintain your home. They want to capture dollars from every home improvement, in whatever category. Springs Industries saw that sheets and blankets were not enough for beach enjoyment; umbrellas, picnic baskets and so on would complete the experience. So in cooperation with Wall*Mart these were duly brought in from the Far East to provide complete beach enjoyment, with profit to Springs and Wall*mart.

The stories are probably the most useful contribution from Tom Peters. Told with verve, they give substance and energy to things that to a large degree you knew about already, in such a way that you cannot ignore them. Many of the new approaches that companies adopt are a matter of reframing: Harley Davidson as a lifestyle company, not a vehicle manufacturer - not a semantic quibble but a re-orientation of attitude starting in the company and extending to the customers (or possibly the other way round). Another semantic jewel: "From ‘Product Provider’ to ’Solutions Impressario’ ".

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Shattering barriers

What remains in the company has to be cross functional. Those old silos - we don’t do that in this department - have to go. The walls have to come down, the company tribes have to stop warring. Stories are told of CIA, FBI and Special Forces acting in isolation from each other; of segregated fire departments and police. These are not just communication issues. Rather, they go to the heart of how we do business.

Al Qaeda seems to understand this, to our detriment. They don’t defer action while they hold meetings to prepare for meetings, to prepare for the Big Meeting or give priority to wonderful PowerPoint presentations, which occupy so much of board room attention.

Cross functional solutions must rule. Not "our turf", but value added through integrated solutions. All functions contribute equally - no second cousins, we are all partners, we never blame, all our work is cross functional, we involve the full supply and demand chain - and there are another 45 "immodest ideas" for getting rid of the walls or of "stove-pipe myopia" as he calls the affliction.

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Creating experiences

"We need to create a cause and live the brand" is a slogan that leads on to the further development of his theme(s). Everyone must move on from customer satisfaction, transactional efficiency, service, to providing experiences, to creating events. Running an enterprise has a lot of theatre about it. A drama is being played out. It is holistic. It is emotional. It means emphasising the intangibles and the soft elements, like comfort, beauty, trust, warmth, companionship. Again Peters sees these as more than semantic twists. He give us a whole list of near synonyms like episode, encounter, adventure, taste, sense, existence, live through, affected by - and asks why we don’t use them more.

He gives examples of this reframing of what companies do. The most outrageous is about Harley Davidson. "What we sell is the ability for a 43 year old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns, and have people be afraid of him". Personally I don’t like the ethics; it doesn’t do much to make the world a better place, but it sells and that is Tom Peters’ criterion.

Other quotes: "Club Med is more than just a resort; it is a means of rediscovering oneself, or inventing an entirely new me". "Guinness as a brand is all about community, it’s about bringing people together and sharing stories". Starbucks, the coffee people, advertise their book on the company: "Pour your heart into it; how Starbucks built a company, one cup at a time".

Companies which have thus branded themselves, so that the public have a positive perception of them, have a story with a plot and an edge. General Motors see themselves as in the Art business, sculptors of style and entertainers, who coincidentally happen to provide transportation. The story is told of a LAN installation company which re-branded itself as "the Geek Squad" as it installed its computer telecommunications systems.

"It’s metaphysical", says Peters. Nokia, Nike, Lego and Virgin are examples of this. They make or market physical products but invest them with qualities which are beyond the physical. "Experience is the essence of life in the new economy."

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Making dreams come true

Peters goes on to say more about dreams. He quotes a former American CEO saying: "A dream is a complete moment in a client’s life. Important experiences which tempt the client to commit substantial resources.... Helping clients to become what they want to be". A new word is pressed into service "DREAMKETING" with the proposal that no project should be undertaken unless it is a dreamketing one. This CEO insists that we go beyond zero defects as objectives to "love at first sight’, " seduce through the peripheral senses". The slogan "Exceed expectations" Peters despises. When something excites you scream, you shout; "expletives ignite the air". You don’t just say after an exceptional football match "That game exceeded expectations."

The reader is invited to join Dreamers Un-anonymous and paint the world with capital letters and lurid colours. That is the mood of each chapter, which is why it is a difficult book to summarise. It also tires you out somewhat! It is shouting from the roof top what many other authors have expressed in more measured tones in books and articles, many of which have been summarised elsewhere in this forum.

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Design as "soul"

The book goes on to view design as a fundamental of creating experiences, events, dreams or brands. He sees design as the "soul" of the new enterprise. And he practises what he preaches. Kai Peters, Ashridge CEO, in a brief review of the book in Management Today, considers that the design of this book reflects its aggressive tone. "Fiery red and sombre black backgrounds proliferate, capital letters litter the text, which is underscored with coloured designs."

Tom Peters brings on to stage Gillette as key design people, with their Mach 3 razor and their Oral B Cross Action toothbrush. He also discusses hotel chains that are designed to make you feel at home though far way, (and some which don’t)..

He makes the point that men can’t design for women’s needs. Women tend to think with their hearts and what they design reflects this.

Tom Peters believes that design should be on the agenda of every board meeting and that professional designers should be on every project team. 17 rules are offered for getting design into the centre of a company’s activity. Full colour pages illustrate companies which have paid proper attention to design. Companies that get it right include Body Shop, Nike, Amazon, VW, Sony etc.

He continues with the even more evocative word "BEAUTY", a word which he says we avoid between 9am and 5pm. He uses the word in its technical sense of a beautiful system as at FedEx and Southwest Airlines and describes the bureaucratic company as suffering from beauty’s antithesis - obesity. So many of the systems we create lack any idea of beauty. Simplicity, grace and clarity are other related words. Elegance also gets a look in.

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Brands reflecting the heart of the company

Having looked at experiences, dreams, events, beauty and design, Tom Peters then moves on to a fuller consideration of Branding. As you would expect it is more dynamic than a normal treatise on the matter. He considers branding to be an obvious necessity. "When one has an identity, life gets a lot simpler". "Success means never letting the competition define you. Instead you have to define yourself based on a point of view you care deeply about." One is not surprised as he goes on to describe a brand as an emotional connecting point that transcends the product. It is nothing more and nothing less than heart. It’s what’s inside your company.

Who are you? Why are you here? How are you unique?

The first question achieves a particular poignancy in many cases of acquisitions and mergers, where the former identities become confused.

The second question asks: What does your company do which will enrich the world?

The third question invites reflection on a point of view that you care deeply about. One top manager said "You do not want to be merely the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do." You want to deliver ONE GREAT THING - something that makes a dramatic difference. I can hear some readers saying that we can’t all be unique. There will always be commodities of product and service. I feel Tom goes over the top somewhat, yet even among commodities there can be intangible factors in even the smallest things. And little things often make a big difference.

In his fascination with words and their action power, our author goes for verbs rather than nouns, word of action. "Apple opposes, IBM solves, Nike exhorts, Virgin enlightens, Sony dreams, Benneton protests....Brands are not nouns but verbs." Thus declared one CEO.

It is essential for everyone in the company to share the heart and the belief. They have to feel the brand. Branding is about meaning, not marketing, about deep company logic, not fancy new logos.

"Leadership is the Siamese twin of branding". It sets the feelings and concerns alight. Franklin Roosevelt was "the brand manager of freedom and dignity during the great depression" saying "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Gandhi put it well when he said "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." Steve Jobs said: "Let’s make a dent in the universe."

Great leadership is described as great story telling. Great branding is the great story.

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Women as key purchasers

Tom Peters emphasises the role of women in two of his chapters. Women are the primary purchasers of nearly everything. Failure to have them in positions of influence in a company is folly indeed. A merely male perspective is not enough. "Men and women don’t communicate the same way; they don’t buy for the same reasons. He’s interested in completing a transaction; she’s interested in establishing the relationship." Agree or not, it merits further thought. Treating women in any way as second rate humans is sheer nonsense. There are millions of dollars or pounds to be picked up if products and services could be designed to give women what they want and delivered in a way that they would appreciate. And who better to do that than WOMEN!

The author tells stories of how services such as hotels and restaurants are frequently organised without any thought about a female perspective or need. Concert halls are notorious for not providing adequate toilet facilities for women. Experts are paraded by companies, very often without a woman among them, although more women will instigate the purchases than men. American women instigate 83% of all consumer purchases; 94% of home furnishings; 92% of vacations; 91% of new homes; DIY 80%; Cars 60%; new bank accounts 89%; healthcare 80%. More than 50% of working wives in the USA earn more than half their families’ incomes.

Challenging contrasts are offered between men and women. They are of course not true of every woman, but are presented as clear trends. He is right oriented; she, responsibility oriented. He has an individualist perspective; she, a group perspective. He is self oriented; she, other oriented. Then there are differences in listening, talking, and focussing.

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Women’s talent

Even where women’s rights are recognised, their strengths are often ignored. Women are said to be better at improvisation than men; more self determined and trust sensitive; they rely more upon intuition; they develop relationships with greater facility.

Yet it continues to be largely a man’s world with a shortage of true talent which could be overcome if women were properly recognised. He gives the examples of women as salespeople, where they utilise their skills as relationship creators and nurturers. Male students writing up a complex management problem filled their pages with words like strategy, conflict, interests, claims, trade-offs, rights. Women spoke of resolution, relationship, cooperation and loyalty. When male talent placers get a glimmer of these variations, they still misinterpret them, by assuming that a woman can’t handle a tough assignment, a difficult client or a lot of travelling. She would perhaps handle them in a different way from men, but handle them she could.

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The over 50s market

Finding the right business approach to older people is seen as vital. Ageism is another means of losing opportunity. The over 50s have more money to spend in general than the under 40s who are often targetted by companies. Tom Peters is 60 at the time of writing. The expectations of older people are greater than they used to be. They don’t put up the shutters and lounge about in their carpet slippers for the rest of their lives.

For some years to come they are the biggest cohort and should be wooed assiduously. In USA the over 50s purchase 41% of new cars; they control 70% of all wealth; they have 40 million credit cards between them and 79% of them own homes. Many articles and talks in the media can be quoted on the attitude of many older people to what they believe life holds for them This summariser is 80 and knows what Peters is talking about.

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WOW projects

One of the points Peters makes when talking about branding is that we each have to brand ourselves; have a sense of identity and know what lies at the heart of our existence. Against this background he comes to the question of making work matter, which includes looking at the changing face of work, already introduced earlier in the book. Slogans are offered like "Learn something new every day"; "Revel in the thrill of changing times"; "Nobody gives you power. You just take it"; "Don’t just express yourself, invent yourself".

He loves the phrase WOW to express projects which astonish providers and recipients alike. He applies it to projects which aim to change the world and which leave a legacy behind them. WOW projects are stretching projects which face you with a sense that what you and your colleagues have done really matters. WOW people don’t just keep the rules, they don’t particularly respect the boss, they don’t worry overmuch about to keeping to the budget, or minimising risk, or respecting the chain of command. Yet they are not anarchists. They will destroy in order that they may build. They shun mediocrity. "WOW" is complete with capital letters and a red exclamation mark!!! WOW rewards excellent failures and punishes mediocre successes.

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Power for the powerless

The exercise of power for the apparently powerless is another theme. Attack the holy authority of today’s bosses we are told. I don’t know how many sackings Peters will be responsible for. I imagine he would say that sackings from organisations threatened by your freedom would be a blessing in disguise, freeing you to reinvent yourself.

He gives advice to the powerless to volunteer for "crappy jobs", and use them as stepping stones, as chances, not chores. But don’t expect to be able to sell a good idea up the chain of the command. You have to be more subtle than that. Big wins come in small packages. 19 tools for the powerless are another of the Peters lists, telling you how to work in the underground and to be persuade by being healthy, stealthy and wise.

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Story telling

A chapter on bosses stresses the role of story telling, about heroes, stories that fire the imagination. Stories give permission to act; are photographs of whom we aspire to become; they create emotional responses and we connect with them and they become us. Good bosses entice revolutionaries out of the woodwork into action, because they know they need them. Memorable sayings include "Look for the things that went right and build on them"; "Leaders make meaning".

Story telling may seem far removed from the hard practice of business, but their impact can be anything but soft. The job of a leader is to identify and give opportunity to the heroes of tomorrow. Needless to say, the stories are WOW stories.

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25 rules for salespersons

I often find that two thirds of the way through a long book, the same ideas begin to recur and we get consolidation of what has already been presented. This is true to some extent of this book. None the less there are good things still to be brought out of the author’s kit bag. Not least among these are the 25 "rules" for a salesperson.

These are actually of more direct use to a sales manager than some of the hype that is inevitable with Tom Peters. Know your product - your company - your customer may sound obvious, but "love the politics" and "respect the competitors" may seem less so. Sell solutions, never over promise, don’t be too proud to ask for help. Don’t hoard information. Respect upstarts. These and others can be of immediate help, though they are all of one piece with the overall philosophy of the book. Having seen the amount of material that some PowerPoint Presentations try to get on each slide, I very much endorse his rule no 25 "keep your slides simple". And there is an appendix to the rules (in red and black of course): "We’re all in Sales - all the time."

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Talent

A couple of chapters on talent flow from much of what went before. The ideas of "Me Inc" and reinventing yourself resurface. Think of yourself as an independent contractor, a free agent with a number of mini careers and no one lifetime job. You stand on your own feet and can blame no one. You have to be "distinct or extinct" and follow ten rules for the "Brand You" survival kit. These include thriving on ambiguity, laughing off vigorous screw ups and having a passion for renewal.

There is another list called Talent 25, seen from the perspective of the manager, but with meaning for everyone. Tom Peters feels that the word "talent" sounds so much better than employees, personnel or human resources, labour or bodies in a cubicle. The people issue becomes the "talent opportunity". Rule 2 is "Be obsessed", a two word summary of the whole book. "Pursue the Best" is followed by "Weed out the rest". "Train! Train! Train!" is borrowed from Deming. Embrace the whole individual is a good corrective against narrow judgments. (I remember not getting a job with another organisation because they discovered I was active in international church work and were frightened I would not be committed enough to their business. The rest of my career was the opposite and every aspect of my life has fed off the others.)

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Celebrating weirdoes

An interesting Peters rule is that we should celebrate weirdoes. Any organisation needs some.

Companies need to recruit some freaks, some people who don’t just fit the norms. They are the people who will spot unheard of opportunities and do things in impossible ways, which prove possible and beneficial. They tend to attract unusual customers, who may be the stars of the future. (Where were Microsoft or Dell only a relatively few years ago?) I found the word "weirdoes" for these types a bit off-putting, but knew what he meant when he says that if you hang out with weirdoes, you will be weird and if you hang out with dull people, you will be dull.

Dullness and mediocrity feel safer to many leaders of business; get everything running on railway lines and you know where you are, or you will think you do, except that this is not what the world is like. It runs on roller coasters and you need roller coaster riders around to help you navigate the new routes or lack of routes.

On this search for weirdoes, to bring new life to a company, the story is told of a CEO who asked Peters "Tom, who is the most interesting person you’ve met in the last 90 days? And how do I get in touch with him or her?" He wanted to remain ahead of his rivals in the years to come.

Some rules are given for making sure that you get these kind of people. Hire people who make you uncomfortable or even whom you dislike. Don’t try to learn anything from people who seem to have solved the problem that is troubling you. Again Tom is irritating us by his overstatement. What nonsense! we may feel. But hang on a moment. He may have a point. The same may go for "Encourage people to ignore and defy superiors and peers". As a legalistic rule it won't stand up but as a mixture of hyperbole and metaphor it might affect our choice at the next interview we are involved in.

Another quote, this time from the CEO of Canon: "We should do something when people say it is ‘crazy’. If people say something is ‘good’, it means that someone else is already doing it."

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The impact of the educational system

You can’t talk about business without being concerned about early education. Much has been written about it and Peters reflects what Knowles, Rogers, Illich and others have said. The school system is seen as a thinly disguised conspiracy to quash creativity. "The main crisis in schools today is irrelevance". "Our education system is a second rate, factory style organisation pumping out obsolete information in obsolete ways." "Our educational thinking is concerned with ’what is’. It is not good at what can be." "Every time I pass a jailhouse or a school I feel sorry for the people inside".

Again we have the Peters hyperbole at work. There are many excellent teachers trying to develop the young minds, within systems that are often too rigid. Nevertheless in most countries there will be some resonance with Peters’ outrageous statements.

The idea of inducing docility was an early view of universal education. You can imagine what Peters thinks of that. Schools have often been designed to be instruments for the scientific management of a mass population. Testing versus questing is discussed. The tendency is for large numbers of competent human beings to be deprived of the right to explore things they might actually care about.

Tom Peters’ views on education are all of one piece with everything he has said about the working life. Possibly he overlooks the disciplinary problems of our age, though he discourages the habit in some nations where the kids practically stand up and salute as the teacher enters the room. However, he has to be right that children need to be inspired, excited and encouraged to love learning and to want to pursue it for the rest of their lives, which rigid timetables and curricula and testing needs do not address sufficiently.

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Learning from others

Turning to how adults learn in the business context, the author has something to say about benchmarking. He warns of the dangers of this much favoured activity. He acknowledges that there is value in testing your achievements against anybody who does anything. But normally the benchmarking is done against the "industry leader". He believes that the comparisons should be against those companies, already "living in 2013", who are doing something "wild and wacky". He quotes Mark Twain as saying: "the best swordsman in the world does not need to fear the second best swordsman in the world. No, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he does the thing he ought not to do, and it often catches the expert out and ends him on the spot."

The Deming doctrine of one or few suppliers in any area is challenged as detrimental to learning. It might simplify life and give reliability, but it will miss the small innovative supplier who is offering something which could transform the way your company does business. Similarly with acquisitions - it is not the obvious acquisitions that you need necessarily to go for. A small innovative focused company might have something to teach you; it might be just what you need to stimulate innovation, which is the essence of competition.

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In Search of Excellence revisited

People who remember "In Search of Excellence" with which Tom Peters and Bob Waterman first hit the headlines in 1982, may wonder how far he has changed in 20 years. He still sees value in the eight basics in that book, but also sees need for modification. Thus ‘Bias for Action’ becomes ‘bias for madness’. ‘Close to the customer’ becomes ‘One with the customer’. ‘Productivity through people’ becomes ‘Employees as talent’ and in 2003 becomes ‘productivity without people’. ‘Stick to your knitting’ is replaced by ‘What is your knitting?’.

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Leadership principles

The last chapter of Re-imagine gives 50 ways of pursuing excellence as leaders in a disruptive age. It is a chapter worth looking at when leaders are frequently changed because their interpretation of the stock market has landed them in trouble or perhaps because they weren’t quick enough to spot the critical moment. The essence of the 50 points is that we must ask more of leaders than merely good stewardship of the assets they inherit. "In an age when permanence is a dangerous delusion, we must instead ask leaders to challenge the legacies they have inherited, to create entirely new value propositions - and then get out before they get stale".

From among the 50 propositions these are only about a quarter - just to give the flavour and to show how they stem from everything else that Tom Peters has written in this book:

Leaders create opportunities
Leaders say ‘I don’t know"
Leaders are talent developers
Leaders love the mess
Leaders know when to wait
Leaders honour rebels
Leaders make mistakes
Leaders create blame free cultures
Leaders break down barriers
Leaders engender trust
Leaders are great learners
Leaders take breaks
Leaders know when to leave.

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Using the book

There is no way to produce a really satisfactory summary of this book. I have tried to be fair and balance my own irritation at his ranting style by a recognition that there is a mood here which we ignore at our peril. It would not match the normal MBA programme or the usual board meeting, but maybe there are indicators here that we need to move forward. If you feel he exaggerates, remember that you wouldn’t take a poet literally, but he or she makes you see things in a new light and stirs new feelings within you, which lead to new actions

As to the practical use of the book there is a very good standard, old fashioned index which will enable you take just a sip of Tom Peters as you face some particular problem. Argue with him. Tell him that what he is saying is poppycock; but he will insinuate some new mood or approach into your thinking.

As I spent several days trying to summarise the book, in spite of my distaste for hype, I found myself falling into his literary style or non style. My sentences began to become incomplete and ever shorter; declamation seemed to take over from sober reason and I was falling under his sway.

However, when it comes down to action you do need some interpretation and specific application and, in addition to using the index, you may find it in other books. Tom Peters does not actually specifically propose much in the way of new actions and actual solutions. He is more concerned with the mental set with which you approach the problems and opportunities. However leaders and managers have to take some specific actions and a number of books reviewed or summarised elsewhere in this forum, explore, in some detail, many of the areas Tom Peters has highlighted.

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Conclusion

Meanwhile I was lost on how to write a conclusion. In the end I plumped for a quotation from Kai Peters’ review of the Tom Peters book in the December issue of Management Today. Here it is:

"It really is an impossible book to review; it irritates, it challenges, it attacks, it screams at you; but underlying it all there’s passion and relentless demand that we move on from the status quo. If you want something more gently persuasive, go elsewhere. Re-imagine is thought provoking and enjoyable.

"Peters has a knack for bringing together myriad trends and ideas in a format that does not seek to persuade, because he feels that will not make complacency go away. Instead, he feels it is his calling to shout, and to demand - and he will do so from the business book section of an airport near you."

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