Elevate magazine for Grant Thornton
Published on Thursday November 12, 2009
Bestselling business author Tom Peters has had it with talk of ‘business models’. To thrive in difficult times, he says, you really need to get some hobbies. By Chris Alden.
Tom Peters is going back to basics. The American who practically invented the modern business book, back in 1982 when he wrote In Search of Excellence with his McKinsey co-author Robert Waterman, says he has had it with talk of ‘business models’ and ‘alignment of staff priorities’ and polysyllabic business jargon of the third kind.
As the world claws its way out of recession, the father of all business gurus is preaching a message he reckons is most suited to today’s chastened, post-bubble times: keep it simple. Or rather, knowing Peters’s love of repetition, line breaks and exclamation marks, that might be:
Keep It Simple!
Keep It Simple!
Keep It Simple!
But you get the point.
I am offered a 20-minute interview with Peters, a man now famous as much for his creative chaos, his shoot-from-the-hip personal style and his ability to deploy an analogy at 10 paces, as for the landmark book he wrote 27 years ago.
It probably wouldn’t be enough with most people, but after only a short time, I see more clearly about business and about life – at least for a while.
We start with a bit of a banter about the movies. Peters has just seen the film Julie & Julia, and has posted a tweet on Twitter asking if there’s a better case study out there about the ‘pursuit of excellence’, the goal to which Peters has devoted his life and work.
The film – about Julia Child, the woman who brought the joys of French cooking to America – charts the success story of a ‘shocking enthusiast’, says Peters, who crossed language and cultural barriers and ‘changed the natural approach to cooking’.
Peters, to borrow his own phrase, is also a ‘shocking enthusiast’ – a herald of change who has been increasingly accused of populism as he aims his nuggets of wisdom not only at CEOs, but at middle managers, the self-employed and those at the bottom of the corporate pyramid. And his advice is often as much drawn from the world of film or books or military history as it is from business.
The thing about Child, says Peters, is that, to quote Kenny Rogers, she just didn’t ‘know when to fold ’em’. ‘Everything that changes the world comes from people who are not sane about when they stop doing something,’ says Peters.
‘In the British case, [those people include] idiots like Churchill who thought the country could stand up by itself, without even the prospective help of the bloody
Americans,’ he adds, warming to one of his classic themes, military history. ‘We
were about as interested in helping the Brits in 1940 as flying to the moon.’
I’m enjoying the conversation, but I feel I should bring it back to business. So I float the idea that a wide range of interests like Peters’s – be it film, cooking, military history or whatever – can only be a good thing in business.
‘I’m not trying to say anything about myself, but it is said that the real essence of creativity is not raw intelligence as measured by IQ,’ says Peters, ‘but the ability of people to go sideways and to extract something from some arena and apply it somewhere else.
‘And there’s evidence that this is true even in the world of executive business. I was reading a set of interviews in the Wall Street Journal a couple of years ago, and some guy was saying, “I owe more success to my woodworking hobby than any articles I’ve read in the Harvard Business Review”.’
One of the problems that led to the credit crunch, suggest Peters, was that too many people didn’t have a diverse enough view of the world – and were so closely connected to a paradigm that they couldn’t see where they were going wrong.
‘Certainly, Wall Street’s obsession with narrow mathematical models didn’t model much of anything, as it turned out,’ he says. ‘We can imagine [America’s economists] drinking extremely high-priced chardonnay from California and deciding their model really did encompass human nature and the world as a whole – when in reality, they had about 0.00001% of reality encompassed.’
The ‘clever boy’ phenomenon, says Peters, is part of the problem, not the solution. So I pick the wrong time to ask Peters which businesses with which business models are likeliest to succeed, or fail, in this changing world.
‘I happen to believe that whoever invented the term “business model” ought to be stuck inside a jail cell,’ replies Peters. ‘I hate the term. It’s like the bloody mathematical models – why can’t we say that you and I are Julia Child and Simone Beck, and we have a passion for cooking and we want to start a damned restaurant – and we want to figure out how to cook good food, attract money into the restaurant, spend money on what’s necessary, but not too much?
‘That’s called business! And we don’t have to call it a business model!’
‘I understand the glory of making all this stuff sound shockingly sexy,’ Peters continues. ‘I have an MBA from a quant school and I worked for McKinsey for eight years. But the reality is that my favourite Brit, Horatio Nelson, was known for the simplicity and the clarity of the orders he issued to his commanders. And the orders basically said: “Just bloody keep sailing”.’ (Or England expects every man to just bloody keep sailing, but again, you get the point.)
‘There’s a wonderful Napoleonic quote that fundamentally says: the art of war isn’t that complicated, so why is it that generals continue to get into trouble? And the wonderful final line, which is that they try too hard to be clever. A bit less cleverness and a little more doggedness wins the battle,’ he concludes, ‘at either Trafalgar or in the City of London.’
OK, I think – as we’re on the subject, let’s talk about leadership. What about the idea, often espoused by Peters, that a leader needs to align the values of a business and the personal values of its staff? Surely US companies like Patagonia, which sells recycled polyester fleeces and organic cotton T-shirts, and has a core team of motivated, outdoorsy staff, have much to teach the business world?
‘Again one has to watch out,’ replies Peters, ‘just to keep the language simple. You and I who probably both have too much education need to drop three-syllable words like “alignment” and just say: “if people are excited about what they’re doing, they’re more likely to excite their customers.”
‘It helps [explain] Branson’s success. The British have written too much about Branson as we have written too much about [Jack] Welch, but Branson deserves it.
‘Everything from the colourful nature of his logos to the fact that he really enjoys it most when he’s stuffing it in the ear of stuffy old BA – is something that turns people on. My understanding – and I don’t pretend to be an expert – is that people feel that, while it might not be quite as holy as a reduction of carbon footprint, it is a cause worth signing up for.’
Ultimately, says Peters, success is about having excellence as an aspiration – whether you’re the leader or the led. ‘I also contend that in the medium to long term it’s the best way to make money, and to have a sustainable revenue stream.
‘When we watch the failure going way back to the Leylands and the British Steels, or General Motors which is Leyland II, their biggest problem is they stopped making great cars.’
All of which draws a neat line from In Search of Excellence to the credit crunch, and heralds a back-to-basics approach for the future: turn off that spreadsheet, and work on your relationships with your employees, suppliers and customers. ‘The signature phrase of In Search of Excellence, as Bob Waterman and I said, is: “hard is soft and soft is hard”. In the long run it’s the numbers which are squishy, and the relationships and people development stuff which is the truly hard stuff.
‘That’s an easy sell in 2009, given the squishiness of the numbers that have laid us low around the world.’
But isn’t this all a bit … obvious? Isn’t it embarrassingly … simple? Peters doesn’t deny it. ‘One guy who attended a seminar said: “This was a great seminar – I didn’t learn anything at all. It was a blinding flash of the obvious.” I subsequently used that in a chapter title of a book.
‘Whether we talk about you as a freelancer or me as whatever the hell I am, it’s pretty damn basic stuff really. Even as a Brit, if we listen to Napoleon on “why do generals fail?” – that might take us a long way.’
Commenting is closed for this article.
All content © Chris Alden. Original design by Andy Brockie, adapted by Chris Alden over the years.