Still Angry After All These Years

Many of the New Economy tenets Tom Peters espoused have fallen by the wayside. But this most famous of management thinkers wants you to know he remains riled—and relevant.

It's time to make hay on Tom Peters's 1,400-acre farm in rural West Tinmouth, Vermont. As the farmhands collect bale after bale of fresh hay on this brilliant summer day, the warm sun splashes through the window of Peters's airy farmhouse study, illuminating the entire wall of bookshelves stacked tight with iterations of Peters's 10 books translated into languages from Russian to Japanese. The breeze is calming. The scent of wildflowers wafts through the air. The birds are singing. There's probably even a babbling brook around here somewhere. In short, it's a perfectly idyllic day in what should be the perfectly contented life of one of the world's best-known management thinkers.

"What an ass!" Peters explodes. He's talking about Peter Olson, CEO of Random House, whose Machiavel- lian approach to management was recently described in excruciating detail in The New York Times Magazine. "Someone who takes pleasure in firing like that, it's unbelievable!"

Less than 10 minutes later, the volcano erupts again as Peters talks about his disappointment with a three-book series he published a few years ago. It wasn't the sales that bugged him — he says they hit around 350,000 — but how the series was perceived. "I thought it sucked, basically," he exclaims. "It didn't have any impact."

Not to make an impact when you are, among other things, the coauthor of one of the most popular business books ever written (In Search of Excellence, HarperCollins, 1982) would certainly be a maddening experience. For a man whose every sentence, including possibly "pass the salt," is uttered with the utmost urgency, it is infuriating. But then fury is something Peters knows how to work with.

Now 60 and a millionaire many times over, Peters could be excused if he wanted to float lazily in his spring-fed pond and spend his days with the sheep, the goats, the alpaca, and the two glorious mountains looming outside his window. Frankly, he doesn't have a whole lot to complain about. But for Peters, getting worked up, annoyed, irritated, steamed, and outraged is the standard MO. It's the way he gets things done. Even his method of dictating the first drafts of his books into a microcassette recorder is to rant. "I'm pissed off at life," he says. "Plus, I happen to believe that only pissed-off people change the world, either in small ways or large ways."

And although he likes to act as if he couldn't care less, changing the world is exactly what he's trying to do in his 11th book, Re-imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age (Dorling Kindersley). The first "big book" he has written since Circle of Innovation (Knopf) in 1997, the 352-page tome is basically the unabridged Tom Peters on anything to do with business, from leadership to brands to technology. You've seen or heard about parts of it before, some of it in these pages: ideas such as Brand You and the notion that information technology changes everything in our world. Other aspects, such as the book's beautiful design and Peters's willingness to step back and take a fresh look at the organization in addition to his traditional focus on the individual, are new. Yet this book, coming at a time when many of the New Economy tenets he was best associated with have been discarded, also comes at a critical point for Peters himself. Can his ideas still have impact in a new, far more cynical age?

In Re-imagine! Peters envisions his own epitaph, as some 60-year-olds are wont to do. It will read, he fervently hopes:

Thomas J. Peters
1942 — Whenever
He Was a Player

"In other words," he continues, "He did not sit on the sidelines . . . and watch the world go by . . . as it was undergoing the most profound shift of basic premises in the last several hundred years (if not the last thousand or so years)." The line is vintage Peters, complete with his trademark grandiosity, enthusiasm, and those infernal parentheses. But the epitaph, at least, will prove true, no matter whether you see him as a brilliant thinker who keeps beating the rest of us to the future, a guy who got lucky with his first book and then went off the deep end, or something in between. Tom Peters was — and is — a player.

In person, Peters is far funnier, less pc, more irreverent and gentler than his uber-punctuated way of writing and public speaking conveys. He still gets mad, obviously, but isn't opposed to conceding a point here or there, or sharing a belly laugh over some of his own excesses. Dressed in a cutoff green sweatshirt, dirty shorts, and hiking boots, Peters, with metal glasses slightly askew, looks more as if he'd spent the afternoon lording it over the weeds in his backyard on a power mower than living the life of "the most influential business thinker of the age," according to his press kit, and the second most prominent business intellectual in the world (after Michael Porter), according to an Accenture study. The refreshing thing about Peters the man is that even if his words are idealistic, he is unabashedly real.

"Wouldn't you like to think that a quiet leader will lead you to the promised land? I think it's total utter bull, because I consider this to be a time of chaos."

And he is not about to concede defeat. Even as the beautiful future Peters promised us fades in the rearview mirror like a town we never visited, Peters is hard at work repelling the attackers, thrilled, he claims, to be a contrarian again. "So what [if] 98% of the dotcom companies failed? Some of them didn't," he says. "I believe that the New Economy is real. I believe the technology change is just in its infancy." Although he acknowledges that the sort of free agency he championed has become more of a nasty surprise than a liberating choice these days, the notion that you and only you are responsible for your career is more important than ever. "You don't go more than two weeks without seeing that IBM or GE or somebody else is shipping more $100,000 jobs — not $30,000 jobs — offshore," he says. "And so the Darwinian Brand You, every person for themselves, now it's an imperative. It's very different from being cool . . . but the path out is the same whether you got there voluntarily or involuntarily."

True enough. But will people pick up and read a cool, inspirational treatise when the reason they're free agents is that they've been canned? That's the challenge of Re-imagine!, which will be published on October 15. It is in some ways a departure for Peters and in other ways a continuation of the same quirks, writing tics, and moments of brilliance that have defined his previous work.

Re-imagine! is most definitely a New Economy book, replete with an unshakable belief that the changes of the past decade or so have permanently transformed the world of work; the book is infused with an optimism that things can and will be better. Those who accuse Peters of lacking relevance and rigor are not going to change their tune this time around. The word WOW isn't as omnipresent as it's been in the past, but it's still there — complete with capital letters, the ubiquitous exclamation points, and the ideology that action beats the pants off sitting around and thinking about action. In Tom's World, it's always better to try a swan dive and deliver a colossal belly flop than to step timidly off the board while holding your nose. Each chapter starts with a "Rant" warning that "We are not prepared" for some massive change — either the coming "stupendous" information-technology adventure or the fact that design will soon be the "Seat of the Soul." Then comes Peters's vision for that theme, such as a new approach to education or a finance department peopled with poets and musicians.

In contrast with such broad visions, Peters's most recent efforts have been focused on narrower subjects. In 1999, for example, there was The Professional Service Firm 50 (Knopf), a book aimed at energizing the accountants and lawyers of the world. In fact, he originally wanted to do a series of small books, but publisher Dorling Kindersley insisted on starting with the "big think" book, to be followed by a 24-book series. And so Re-imagine! is big and unwieldy, trying to tie together the various elements of Peters's thinking, such as the brutally ignored economic power of women, which gets two passionate chapters, and the essential fact that without decent human interaction, none of his inspirational ideas are ever going to work. His view is nothing less than the following: We must destroy virtually all our business organizations and reimagine them, just as Donald Rumsfeld is trying to do with the U.S. military, in order to respond to the new technological and social imperatives of our era. If we don't, he says, we are dead. It's as simple as that.

Although Peters's work reveals plenty of contradictions, most of which he'll readily admit, the one thread binding everything together is passion. Unlike many of his more abstract competitors in the field of management, with Peters it all comes down to one thing and one thing only — the folks. "I like to take the same set of ideas and look at them from the ground perspective," he says. "All these strategy guys — Porter, [Clayton] Christensen — they talk wonderfully about these ideas and then blithely skip over the incredibly boring part called people."

Leadership, and particularly bold leaders who thrive on "paradox" and "the mess," writes Peters, are desperately needed in a postffiSeptember 11 world where the virtual organization has gone from consultant-speak to reality in the form of a bunch of Al Qaeda terrorists armed with box cutters. It's the opposite viewpoint of Peters's archrival Jim Collins, whose most recent book, Good to Great (HarperCollins, 2001), has hit the perfect tone for this risk-averse age. "It's calming," says Peters, as he fumes about Collins's "stoic, quiet, calm leaders. Wouldn't you like to think that a quiet leader will lead you to the promised land? I think it's total utter bull, because I consider this to be a time of chaos."

What is most obviously fresh and exciting about this book is the design. Irked at Knopf, Peters dropped the imprint for Dorling Kindersley, a London-based unit of Pearson best known for its visually stunning travel and gardening books. "The whole point of what we've been doing is trying to make the medium as interesting as we hope the message is. You can't write about WOW projects in Technicolor times," he says, without presenting the information that way.

It's easy to understand Peters's Technicolor vision when you spend some time in his surroundings. The farmhouse Peters shares with his wife, designer Susan Sargent, is a cacophonous and joyous explosion of color. Sargent's sensibility is all about the feelings unleashed by unusual combinations of unalike colors. Chartreuse meets blood orange meets robin's egg blue in Peters's own household, and that same shock of the visually unexpected makes its business debut in Re-imagine!. In fact, it was Sargent who first suggested working with Dorling Kindersley.

Visually, the collaboration has been a stunning success. The book looks like a magazine, with arresting photographs of people, buildings, and technologies, plus numbers, exclamation points, and perhaps a few too many shots of Peters expressing a gamut of emotions, from bemused to enraged. His habit of yelling through the use of capital letters is somehow more palatable when they're displayed in cherry red font (the Brand Called Tom's special tint). It is perhaps the first business book that people will actually display on their coffee tables.

Oddly, for a book whose author's name is synonymous with the term "change agent," Re-imagine! seems to eschew the notion of personal transformation. Organizations, he says, can be changed if you find and nourish the fringe lurkers and geeks. "FIND THE FREAKS! SIGN 'EM UP! MAKE 'EM YOUR PARTNERS! LET 'EM HELP YOU MAKE REVOLUTION!" he writes. But people, he now maintains, can't be changed. "No, no, no! Never," he says, gathering steam. This is a strange statement coming from someone who gives 70-odd speeches a year — some at $65,000 a pop — on such subjects as "boss-free implementation" and "business excellence in a disruptive age," to the likes of the Equipment Leasing Association and Wal-Mart. "You don't change people. You get damned lucky and catch them at the right moment and they pay attention, but whatever they had when they walked in the door is what they walk out the door with."

The ironic part of all this is that Peters is now on his own quest for change. He has just returned from a visit to Canyon Ranch, that cult of personal transformation that masquerades as a spa. While there, he got a full-scale workup — and the verdict on Peters was as damning as the one he routinely delivers to companies: Change NOW.

Changing his compulsive approach to work, however, is a different story. It goes without saying that being pissed off all the time isn't on Canyon Ranch's recommended list of stress-release activities. "Large doses of adrenaline surging routinely through the system are not good for you," Peters admits. "I'm supposed to be calm now." He now indulges in a deep-breathing exercise that he runs on his computer, and he plans to swap his normal jumping jacks for breath control before he gives a presentation. But he still gives assistants fits by changing everything at the absolute last moment. "There is a moment of truth at 2 or 3 a.m.," he says. It comes when he sees himself "looking into these 3,000 faces who own hardware stores or who are partners at Deloitte & Touche or what have you. And then the whole bloody presentation has to be changed."

Peters becomes wistful when asked what he would do if he didn't have to live life as a human exclamation point but could instead opt to be a simple comma — if he could jettison Tom Peters and start all over. "I don't have a clue," he says. "I've often said I envy Franklin Roosevelt and his stamp collection. And Churchill had his painting. I don't know what I would do. I have no idea." So the quest continues: Find that one person in a thousand. Do work you love. Remain a player. And stay mad at the world.

Sidebar: The Peters Principles

A sampling of some of the most important themes covered in Tom Peters's new book, Re-imagine!

  1. Destroy to Create
    Forget about Built to Last. All companies, Peters says, are doomed to failure. Better to completely destroy your own company from the inside and remake it in a new, bold and creative way than fight old battles with old ideas — and eventually fade away into irrelevance.
  2. Women Roar
    They are the most important group in our economy. They spend and make most of the money. They make the key financial decisions. And yet they are talked down to, never designed for, not consulted, fundamentally ignored. The New Economy runs on the principles that women are used to — collaboration rather than command and control, for one — and until men realize that and change their approach, they are doomed to failure.
  3. It's an XF (Cross-functional) World
    Nothing works without honest and open communication between decision makers. So you can be as idealistic and as big picture as you like, but you won't get anywhere without the human element. Peters says it's best to embrace the politics and demolish the red tape. Only then can you move on to the greater objectives of changing your company.
  4. Power Dreaming
    Successful companies such as Harley-Davidson and Starbucks work because they sell a lifestyle or an image rather than simply a product. For Harley, it's the experience of the rebel; for Starbucks, it's a place of refuge. Successful companies must offer a "scintillating experience" in order to set themselves apart in an environment where most competitors already provide a decent product.
  5. Think Weird
    The only way to effect true transformation in the workplace, says Peters, is to enlist the outliers in your organization to join your cause. Find the weirdos and the freaks, offer support for the projects they're secretly pursuing, then get them to help you with your own revolutionary change ideas.
  6. Design, the ultimate edge
    In the world of Tom Peters, design is so critical that it should be on the agenda (along with a professional designer) of every meeting in every single department. Design, like lifestyle, is one of the few differentiating factors, and companies that ignore the power of elegant and functional design will lose.

Jennifer Reingold (jreingold@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer.

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