In Search of Excellence
Lessons from America's Best Run Companies By Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman
The year 1982 came early in a period of rampant economic growth, admiration for Thatcherism and free-market economies and awe at the Japanese economic miracle, so it's probably no coincidence that it also marked the start of the age of the business author as guru. That author was Tom Peters, who, together with fellow McKinsey consultant Robert Waterman, wrote this multimillion-selling publishing phenomenon.
With this book, Peters emerged as the toastmaster for modern business management thinking. In Search of Excellence was the new Pied Piper's most influential tome, and he remains a hugely popular writer and speechmaker today.
The book had a simple premise: to unveil the secrets of outperforming companies. It lauded entrepreneurial management, developing 'champions' who are free to make business decisions, sticking close to customers, unique selling points, managing 'ambiguity', and cutting out interference and process overheads. It was against managing by numbers, the idea that organizations are identikit and therefore systems can be replicated, and the implicit suggestion that staff can be treated as swap-in/swap-out assets.
Also, at a time when many CEOs were little known outside their own business sectors and the perception was that America had a lot to learn from Japan, it helped draw the current image of the business leader as seer, superhero, tale-teller, motivator, company heartbeat and leader of men, all rolled into one.
Ironically, it turned out that Peters had feet of clay and several of the inspirational companies he feted ran into trouble within a short period of the book's publication. These included technology companies Data General, Xerox, NCR and Wang, and Rick Chapman's book about technology marketing flops even tilted at Peters: it was titled In Search of Stupidity.
In a way, however, even those failures vindicated Peters' message: that innovation, change and making mistakes -- having a 'bias for action' in Peters-speak -- were all signs of a healthy organization.
If for no other reason, In Search of Excellence is an important book because it has been so widely read as to become a lingua franca for management thinking and because its mania for change and innovation chimed with the influx of IT and business process automation into mainstream organizations. Today's business buzzwords of agility, dynamism and adaptive enterprises have some lineage back to Peters.
But the book is also a reminder that there is no secret formula for making a great organization.
In Search of Excellence at Amazon
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