Tom Peters' Mantra For `Nutty Times'


By Tom Peters

Alfred A. Knopf -- 834pp -- $27.50

It's hard to be indifferent about Tom Peters. He has become American business' best friend and worst nightmare, a champion and a critic, a guru and a gadfly. He is fearless about criticizing the corporate elite: When President Bush went to Japan with Detroit's Lee Iacocca, Harold Poling, and Robert Stempel, for example, Peters dubbed the CEOs "the three blind mice." Eagerness and courage in speaking out on key issues have helped make him the most quoted observer of U.S. business.

Liberation Management, Peters' fourth and latest book, demonstrates that he hasn't run out of things to say. It's an ambitious and literally weighty undertaking, tipping the scale at three pounds. Early on, Peters announces: "I pray we have a bumpy ride in the pages ahead." And so we do. He throws so many stories, anecedotes, and ideas at readers that it's hard to digest them.

Still, the co-author of In Search of Excellence, the best-selling management book published exactly a decade ago, writes in a chatty and engaging style. He brings unabashed emotion and opinion to every page. If all the exclamation points, rhetorical questions, and asides are at times annoying, they're also what set Peters apart from so many other, ponderously dull, business analysts.

In Liberation, Peters--like nearly every other contemporary business observer--writes about the speed at which products, markets, and technology are changing. Exhorting managers to respond to this new reality, he says no industry is staid or predictable anymore. "We're all in Milan's haute couture business and Hollywood's movie business," he writes. "If you don't feel crazy, you're not in touch with the times! The point is vital. These are nutty times. Nutty organizations, nutty people, capable of dealing with the fast, fleeting, fickle, are a requisite for survival."

As always, Peters urges companies to pay more attention to both employees and customers, focusing on ways to motivate workers and forge closer links with buyers. But in Liberation Management, he shifts his emphasis to the structure of organizations. Roughly half the book is devoted to the need to rethink corporate structure. Peters expounds on everything from the need for "minimalist headquarters" to "deintegration"--the falling apart of companies (General Motors comes to mind) that try to produce everything themselves. He speaks of "buckyborgs," organizations made up of 50- to 60-person business units, and of "brainware," which he says has replaced hardware as the basis for competition in the age of information.

Much of what he's saying--that the organization of the future will be leaner, flatter, networked--has been said before. But in the quest for flexibility to cope with fast-paced change, Peters urges a truly radical redo. At his most extreme, he suggests that companies adopt "the rule of five"--that there be no more than five central staffers for every $1 billion in revenue. That's impossible, of course: Even at Johnson & Johnson, perhaps America's most decentralized corporation, there are 1,000 people in headquarters for some $13 billion in sales. But Peters is out to shake up managers' thinking. Central staff, he argues, serves largely as an intrusive bureaucracy, and individual business units could move more quickly and positively with less oversight. He draws inspiration from such iconoclasts as Percy Barnevik, who cut the corporate staff at Switzerland's Brown Boveri from 4,000 to 200 after the company merged with Asea of Sweden. The result: a series of more nimble companies that are closer to their customers.

At one point, Peters urges CEOs to run their companies as if they were carnivals--with a bare-bones central staff, individual hawkers in booths, and customers able to choose whatever services they wish. "Say carnival and you think energy, surprise, buzz, fun," he writes. "To create and maintain a carnival is never to get an inch away from dynamic imagery. As chief, you must feel the dynamics in your fingertips, be guided by them in every decision."

As such passages suggest, Peters is very good at making management advice lively, even interesting, for busy executives. But Liberation Management is just too long. Moreover, on nearly every other page, Peters cites an academic or consultant, a book or article, BUSINESS WEEK or The Harvard Business Review. On the one hand, this is useful: Peters is a kind of intellectual vacuum cleaner, reading widely and continually sucking up ideas. For executives with no hope of reading as much, he provides tidbits of the best new management thinking. But the many citations also point to a problem: Peters seems to be reading too much. This time around, his insights seem increasingly second-hand, formed at a distance from real experience.

With the world moving toward a knowledge economy, Peters looks to today's professional-services firms as models for future survival. They are already populated with knowledge workers, he reasons, so the best-run among them offer lessons for more traditional businesses. Among the companies he holds up as examples are Electronic Data Systems, Ross Perot's old computer-consulting outfit; management consultants McKinsey & Co., Peters' old stomping grounds; and the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen & Co. In each, he notes, most work is performed by teams in which individuals from different disciplines--marketing, finance, production--come together to share ideas and analyze a particular problem. In every kind of business, he suggests, managers should act more like consultants, creating projects and challenging internal norms.

That's good advice. If you can find it.

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