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My seventh confession: Search was perfect. There are no mistakes in it. None, none, none. The eight basic principles that I wrote down on that pad of yellow paper in May 1980, and that became the eight key elements of the book, were right. They were right for 1982. They were accurate. They were correct. Nothing was wrong with them in 1982.
So where’s the confession, you ask? Well, the book is flawed as hell. And we told one big lie — unintentionally, but a lie nonetheless.
Here’s why it was perfect: We absolutely nailed the eight points of the compass that people needed to think about and work on … in 1982. I could quibble with my own language, with the choice of words for some of the eight points — but they were the right eight points. If you look at the world of business in 1982, those eight points said what needed to be said. Period. End of story.
That said, there were flaws. Atari was one of them. Wang Laboratories was another. In hindsight, there were whole categories of business changes that were headed directly at us that we completely whiffed on. They simply weren’t important at the time, hadn’t arrived yet on the scene, or were still too superficial to make an impact. Information technology, for example. We vaguely implied that it would be important — we talked about organizations that were flatter and more flexible. But the notion of working at Internet speed with Internet-enabled communications within and between organizations? We blew it on that one.
We missed the importance of speed — although we did preach the power of action over endless rounds of planning. We ignored the global economy. It’s an all-American book. (We, too, were caught up in the “American malaise.” Remember Jimmy Carter?) Search didn’t even extend as far as Toronto or Tijuana, let alone to more distant shores. There isn’t an entrepreneur in the book. It’s all about big companies. We were McKinsey grunts, after all, and the book is a perfect reflection of that world. I doubt that there’s a woman in the book either. If you went through the entire index of people who appear in Search, I would not be surprised if there wasn’t a single woman or person of color on the list. Those are flaws.
And then there’s our one big — albeit unintentional — lie. The enemy of Search was “the one best way.” It was the practice of scientific management that said to managers, Find the one best way, and you’ll win. The book tried to blow away that one-best-way mentality once and for all. But in the process, we inadvertently substituted our own set of God-given truths, our own patent-medicine prescription for excellence — in perpetuity. People read Search and took away the message that we had written down on the tablets about the new truths on how to win: Do these things, and God will smile down on you. Now and forevermore. Follow these eight rules, and glory will rain upon you.
We forgot to include a warning label. Warning! Nothing is permanent. Anything in excess is a poison. And remember: Everything in business is a paradox. To be excellent, you have to be consistent. When you’re consistent, you’re vulnerable to attack. Yes, it’s a paradox. Now deal with it!
That said, today I hold myself blameless. First, my feeling is that anyone who’s idiot enough to read a business book and follow the words exactly to the letter is just that — an idiot. And second, Search should have been seen as a negative guarantee, not a positive one. A positive guarantee would say, Follow these eight principles, and you will win — guaranteed. I’d never say that — not then, not now. But what I would say is, Ignore these eight principles, and you will fail — guaranteed. If you do none of these things, I can promise you that your company will never come close to being an excellent one. Not for a moment, let alone for an eon. Ignore these eight principles at your peril — for you will lose. That’s no lie, and it’s still true today.
My eighth true confession? I would never write Search today. I’m not interested in Searching for excellence anymore. I’m interested in interesting.
Implicit in Search was the notion that we could write a prescription for the ages that would tell you how to make your company excellent — today, tomorrow, and forever. The truth is, I don’t care if companies are excellent. And I sure don’t care if they stay excellent. What I care about is what we can learn today — now! — by taking a look at companies and people who are doing stuff that’s interesting.
And what’s interesting keeps changing. You can look at the way Dell does computers: They have 100 square feet of spare-parts storage space for a plant that makes more than 20,000 computers a day. That tells you that all of the stuff that gets talked about in the most boring-sounding language in the world — enterprise-resource planning, supply-chain management — is for real. It’s changing how business gets done. And it’s going to keep changing. It’s going to change at a faster and faster pace. The future of business has already happened. It’s out there in the way that the front end of the bell-shaped curve of companies, customers, and suppliers do business today.
The book I’d write today is In Search of Weird. In Search of Curiosity. In Search of the License to Explore. Excellence is simply too static a notion. And the world is simply changing too fast.
Here it is — my last and Final confession. It has been 20 years since In Search of Excellence first appeared. I look back at the eight basic principles that comprised excellence in the book, and I wouldn’t tamper with any of them. But I would add to them. And I would ratchet them up to fit these new, faster, weirder, more volatile, less predictable, more confusing times.
Here’s one measure of how much and how fast things have changed since the book was published: Search was about people, customers, and action. Twenty years later, it’s about ideas, liberation, and speed. We’ve ratcheted everything up several notches. It’s not just people anymore. It’s people paying attention to people, it’s free agents, it’s the power of good ideas that passionate, motivated, fully engaged people can generate. Customers? Sure.
They’re still important. But today, customers have more choice than ever. They’ve been liberated. Which means that companies need to achieve liberation too. Today, it’s all about the freedom to try new things. To experiment. To take a step — no, to make a leap — outside convention, even new convention. To escape from the straitjacket of “That’s the way we do things around here.” Because you can be absolutely sure that your customers aren’t the least bit interested in the way you’ve always done it. They’re interested in the newest, fastest, best way. The way that serves them now. And action was fine when Search came out, because the norm was analysis-paralysis. So action — any action — was better than “Ready, aim, aim, aim . . .” Today, it’s all about speed. It’s “Fire, fire, fire.” If you’re looking for one of the killer apps, from this day forward, it’s speed.
And I’d add two new principles to fit Search: 20 Years Later. The first new principle? GAK! Which stands for God alone knows! Twenty years ago, we were sure that the notion of “one best way” was wrong. We also thought that we could prescribe eight new principles that would get you close to sustaining excellence. Ask me today, and I’d say, “GAK!” Nobody knows — not for sure. Was Webvan a good idea or a bad idea? Destined to succeed or doomed to fail? GAK! Is the HP/Compaq deal going to turn into a brilliant strategic coup or the last dying gasp of two hapless dinosaurs? GAK! It’s all a grand experiment, a work in progress, a movable feast, a real-time evolutionary tale. Anybody who tells you that he knows how it’s all going to come out? Don’t believe him! Laugh — cackle — in his face.
Second principle: SAV. Which stands for screw around vigorously. The most important kind of speed today? Speed to learning. Right now, large numbers of people are worrying about cleaning up the mess that is associated with the wretched excesses of the dotcom debacle. Twenty years from now, we’ll look at today and think of it as totally irrelevant. It’s something that just happened. It took a year or two to clean up. It’s over. In the meantime, the information-technology revolution and the biotech revolution are still in their infancy.
Whatever the dotcoms cost us is cheap for the asking. It doesn’t matter how much red ink is on the floor. We learned more in the past four years than at any other time in the history of business. (Or at least since the parallel wretched excess of the railroad days in the roarin’ ’80s — the 1880s.) You can always print more money. But there’s no substitute for getting smarter faster. And the way that you get smarter is to screw around vigorously. Try stuff. See what works. See what fails miserably. Learn. Rinse. Repeat.
Tom Peters (firstname.lastname@example.org) is, first and foremost, coauthor of In Search of Excellence . All else follows.
Sidebar: In Search of Brevity
In Search of Excellence was on the New York Times best-seller list for more than three years. There are more than 3 million copies in print. And there are undoubtedly a few people who still have not read it. For those businesspeople who may not have read the book, here is a thumbnail sketch of its main points.
Most of the attention paid to the book focuses on the last eight chapters, where Tom Peters and Bob Waterman lay out the eight attributes that they came to associate with excellent companies. But the first four chapters are of real interest — and great power — to serious businesspeople who want to understand the context within which the book was written and the degree to which it examined underlying assumptions about the way people work in large organizations. In the first chapter, Peters and Waterman describe the research behind the book, the McKinsey 7-S Framework (there’s more to life than “s”trategy — six other s’s, to be precise, and the criteria that they used to screen the “excellent” companies.
Chapter two consists of a tough-minded assault on the “rational model”: the fact- and numbers-based approach to management that Peters and Waterman set out to demolish in their book. “The numerative, rationalist approach to management dominates the business schools,” they wrote. “It teaches us that well-trained professional managers can manage anything. It seeks detached, analytical justification for all decisions. It is right enough to be dangerously wrong, and it has arguably led us seriously astray.”
In the third chapter, “Men Waiting for Motivation,” Peters and Waterman make the case for a new style of management, one that places primary emphasis on the people in an organization. It is an impressive argument made all the more compelling by the authors’ ability to draw from a wealth of academic literature and studies done by some of the leading scholars and writers from business, psychology, history, physics, and other diverse fields. In a book that is a remarkable combination of academic research and consulting intelligence, this chapter is the single most impressive performance. Finally, in the fourth chapter, Peters and Waterman turn to a discussion of culture and adaptation as well as learning and change. They remind readers that a manager’s real job is to master ambiguity and paradox.
What follows are eight chapters that lay out the basics of excellence: “A Bias for Action”; “Close to the Customer”; “Autonomy and Entrepreneurship”; “Productivity Through People”; “Hands-On, Value-Driven”; “Stick to the Knitting”; “Simple Form, Lean Staff”; and “Simultaneous Loose-Tight Properties.”