Ever In Search Of A New Take On Excellence

It was a more or less typical day for Tom Peters. He got out of bed at 3:15 a.m. for a predawn run through the rich countryside surrounding his Vermont farm. Later, swerving to avoid a porcupine that scampered across the dirt road, he drove his car into a ditch. After a neighbor pulled him out, he made it to the airport for a 5:30 a.m. private flight to New York, where he was to deliver yet another chest-thumping exhortation to a group of managers.

Peters, the former McKinsey & Co. consultant and co-author of the best-selling management book of all time, In Search of Excellence, has done thousands of speeches and seminars. But this one, on a summer morning before some 50 human resources officers, was different. It was his first chance to present material from his new book to be published this fall, Liberation Management: Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties. Even Peters seemed jittery.

HIGH HOOPLA. Since the publication of In Search a decade ago, and of two best-selling sequels, the iconoclastic Peters has become the most quoted observer of American business. In a world of advice-giving fads and frills, where so many fade out quickly, Peters has shown remarkable durability. So has his Tokyo-based, former McKinsey colleague Kenichi Ohmae, 49, whose ruminations on global business have forced executives to think more clearly in terms of an international marketplace. The Japanese-born thinker was among the first to argue for partnerships among U.S., European, and Asian companies. Ohmae has proved the most prolific of the McKinsey-rooted thinkers, writing 38 books in 20 years. He received 930 requests for speeches last year. Peters' original partner, Robert H. Waterman Jr., has chosen to keep a lower profile, preferring to remain an active consultant.

At the height of the Excellence hoopla, in the early to mid-1980s, Peters was giving 150 to 200 speeches a year--at $25,000 a pop. Now he makes some 30 public appearances annually, at about $60,000 each. He also writes a weekly syndicated column, runs an executive-training company on the side, and appears in several PBS specials a year.

Admirers speak with near-adulation of the evangelical fervor Peters brings to the competitiveness debate. Critics say his often flippant comments are little more than sound bites. More important, however, he has undergone his own transformation from a cheerleader of what's right with the best of Big Business--a basic theme of In Search--to a champion of small to midsize companies and an outspoken critic of the status quo. The change largely results from his belief that smaller operations are easier to manage and that they tend to be more responsive tocustomers.

`BONKERS.' For three straight hours, Peters is out to show he's as relevant and provocative as ever. Pacing the floor, rocking back and forth, he expounds on everything from the need for "minimalist headquarters" to "deintegration," or the falling apart of companies that try to do everything themselves. He speaks of "buckyborgs," his term for clusters of 50- to 60-person business units, and of "brainware," the need to compete on the basis of intelligence instead of hardware. And he hasn't lost his knack for the audacious comment:

-- "If the marketplace has gone bonkers, you better have a bonkers organization. Straitlaced folks are not going to make it in a world that's not straitlaced."

-- "Middle managers are cooked geese. Raise hell and at least go down in flames. You're better off getting fired for doing something interesting rather than laid off while doing something boring."

-- "The average decentralized corporation is not decentralized. It's a sham, a sick joke."

When Peters, 49, talks of companies that do it right, nearly all his examples are either small unknowns or professional service firms such as Arthur Andersen, Chiat/Day/Mojo, and his old employer McKinsey. One reason: Peters believes that the best models for the organization of the future are advertising agencies or consultancies. In such firms, most work is performed by cross-functional project teams that use their collective intellect to satisfy visible customers. People take initiative, start projects, seek customers, and build their own networks of contacts to accomplish goals.

Such companies "trade in pure knowledge," Peters says. "Functional departments are virtually nonexistent, and all the work is organized around loosely linked teams of people." The changing nature of the economy, from a world in which resources were key to one in which knowledge and information are crucial, is the driving force behind this change. To survive, managers have to act more like consultants, creating projects and challenging norms.

The audience, from such companies as American Express and Olin, listens to him, then politely asks a few questions and disbands. Later, back on his 1,300-acre Vermont farm with its llamas and sheep, he hears that many in the audience thought his presentation wasn't relevant to them.

Peters can't hide his disappointment. "I'd like them to get the message," he says. "I'm frustrated because we're dealing with intractable business problems, and it's the frustration of being a reasonably well-known explainer who's not doing anything when it comes to explaining." Ah, but who ever said the life of a guru was going to be easy?

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