BOOKS: Complacency is the enemy of modern management

The latest book by Tom Peters is an iconoclastic, even nihilistic, rant, as its author is proud to proclaim. It's a blast, and highly provocative, declares Kai Peters.

by Kai Peters, chief executive of Ashridge business school
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Tom Peters uses the word RANT at the start of each chapter to describe his strident attacks aimed at shaking managers out of complacency. He doesn't prove anything; he just rants, as is the way of prophets.

The design of the book reflects this aggressive tone, a cross between Wired magazine and the more traditional Dorling Kindersley style. Fiery red and sombre black backgrounds proliferate, capital letters litter the text, which is underscored with coloured designs. Some 25 picture pages seek to provoke, and 80 photos of Tom himself add that certain je ne sais quoi. He certainly doesn't intend you to have a quiet reflective read, except perhaps of some of his illustrative stories in the margin, where he displays his usual skill.

He sees design as the heart of the new enterprise - not just as 'prettifying', but as an expression of passion and emotional attachment, making the experience offered stand out. Thus he and his publisher have 'reinvented the management book' as 'an experience'.

Most of the ideas are not new, though they are put over with great vigour.

For example, Robert Reich and Charles Handy have charted revolutionary changes in the nature of employment. The Peters version is more punchy: 'white collar employment as we've known it is dead'. Humans are fast becoming redundant.

From the start, Peters highlights the theme that all bets are off.

Continuous improvement is out. Just getting better is not enough. There is a new game, he says, 'called RE-IMAGINE in which the rules which define "better" no longer apply ... We are to relish "mess"; the mess has a message.'

He embraces destruction. 'Permanence is the last refuge of those with shrivelled imaginations.' Books like Built to Last and Good to Great are derided in favour of 'unabashed commitment to destruction'. Firms are not meant to last; and, if you need help, Peters offers 20 ways to self-destruct.

None of the old ways is sacred to Tom Peters. Cost centres are out. Functional walls must come down. Work will be contracted out to personal service firms. Turf kings will be dethroned. The only job of HR departments will be to manage intellectual capital. Customer satisfaction will be replaced as an objective by customer success.

To be really effective, companies must rise above providing goods or services to provide experiences and solutions. They should be in the dream business - marketing the fulfilment of customer dreams, not merely exceeding expectations.

Branding is discussed as the identity definer, the emotional pointer to what a firm most cares about - not just external image but 'the expression of the heart ... Branding is about meaning, not marketing, about deep company logic, not fancy new logos.'

Peters proposes that companies must define their purpose and value proposition in a crowded marketplace, constantly reinventing themselves to stay relevant.

A failure to embrace the opportunities created by new technologies or a failure to monitor closely the needs and desires of the young will lead to marginalisation.

This need constantly to develop also applies to the relationship that a company has with its employees. In a knowledge-intensive, free-agent society, firms need to build a relationship with staff, and to maximise its value for the individual staff member and for the company. The world is about talent, and whoever has the most talent has the most opportunities.

Peters sees a much greater role for women - both in the workforce and as consumers and influencers of products and services. They make most of the purchasing decisions in the world. Organisationally, they see what men miss - atmosphere and relationships. And ageism is folly. There is more money to be made from targeting the over-55s than from the under-44s says Peters, aged 60.

Individuals in the new world must reinvent and brand themselves, seizing power when it is not offered. As one would expect, positive approaches are favoured: 'I look for the things that went right and try to build on them.'

There are plenty of checklists in the book, each with a paragraph or two of exposition. So: 25 principles of selling; 25 ways of attracting talent, including weirdos. At the end there are 50 leadership characteristics, including creating opportunities, saying 'I don't know', developing talent, thriving on paradox, honouring rebels, making big mistakes and engendering trust.

It really is an impossible book to review: it irritates; it challenges; it attacks; it screams at you; but underlying it all there's passion and relentless demand that we move on from the status quo. If you want something more gently persuasive, go elsewhere. Re-imagine! is thought-provoking and enjoyable.

Peters has a knack for bringing together myriad trends and ideas in a format that does not seek to persuade, because he feels that will not make complacency go away. Instead, he feels it is his calling to shout, and to demand - and he will do so from the business book section of an airport near you.

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Re-imagine!

Tom Peters

Dorling Kindersley &#163;20

MT price &#163;17 (see panel, p30)

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