Tom Lloyd is a consultant and writer.
Liberation Management: Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties.
By Tom Peters. Macmillan; 868pp; £20.
Review by Tom Lloyd.
The trouble with Tom Peters is that there is not enough method in his madness. The madness (Peters uses the term "bonkers" which, if memory serves, is a word popularised by Margaret Thatcher) is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Even in these "nanosecond nineties", it isn't quite possible to believe that there is no more to management than madness. The new Peters book is a logical development of the argument of his earlier book, Thriving on Chaos (1987), though not of the first two parts of the Peters oeuvre, the disgustingly successful In Search of Excellence (1982) and its sequel, A Passion for Excellence (1985).
Like its predecessors, the new book is eloquent, passionate and stuffed full of fascinating case studies. It is also very, very, very long. If his next book maintains the growth trend established by the first four, it will border on the unmanageable.
But let's return to the argument. This is that in the fast-moving 1990s traditional corporate structures are obsolete, because they cannot handle the "fickle, ephemeral, impermanent and fleeting" qualities that are the most distinctive characteristics of modern markets. It follows, therefore, that the only way to cope is to match the disorganisation of markets with similarly disorganised corporate structures.
In bonkers times, only the bonkers organisation will succeed. Old organisational models are out and there is nothing with which to replace them. In effect, Peters argues, we have reached the end of corporate organisational evolution. Henceforth, businesses must not only learn to thrive on chaos, they must strive, deliberately, to match the chaos that surrounds them by becoming chaotic themselves.
The notion of the unstable organisation is reminiscent of - and, in a sense, parallel to - the idea of the unstable fighter aircraft that took the world of military aircraft design by storm a decade or so ago. The idea then (as in Peters's book now) is that stability is the enemy of agility - and that in the dog-fights of aerial combat and business competition, agility is everything.
But while the new generation of agile combat aircraft are, in an aerodynamic sense, unstable, they are not without structure and systems. On the contrary, they are strong and rigid and stuffed full of avionics. In addition to fly-by-wire controls, they have on-board computers for practically everything - from navigation to weapons targetting. The design concept is to combine agility with strength and fire-power.
The poison of stability is in the dose, not in stability per se. Indeed, one could argue that instability only enhances agility if certain things stay the same; ie, remain stable. Organisations, even highly nimble bonkers organisations, need some kind of binding force within which they can, with confidence, dispense with traditional structures and tackle the zany, fast-changing marketplace that Peters describes so well.
The challenge, therefore, is not to get rid of all stability but to identify those kinds of stability that inhibit the organisation's ability to adapt, experiment and initiate; to remove them and at the same time to bolster, if necessary, those other kinds of stability that give those who work for the organisation the confidence to be bonkers.
Take the case of the British company, Imagination. Peters is a great admirer of this multi-talented event organiser. He sees it as an exemplar of a number of the key themes in his book: the emphasis on projects rather than on strategy, the importance of flexibility, the rejection of the "run-of-the-mill", the insistence on "fun" (boring projects are rejected or rendered non-boring) and an ability to find off-the-wall, high-impact solutions to client problems, with great speed.
But Imagination would have developed none of these qualities had its founder, Gary Withers, not succeeded in developing a culture, an atmosphere and a reputation that attracted talented people and infused them with the self-confidence to be always different. There is substance and structure here. It may not be conventional structure and it does not provide conventional stability but it is strong and it lends coherence to the company.
It makes sense, therefore, to distinguish between the two kinds of stability - the stability that inhibits adaptability and agility and the stability without which a license to be off-the-wall accomplishes nothing.
Liberation Management identifies one of the key challenges of modern management - the need to be agile and innovative - but it does not offer a solution. Perhaps Peters is right in believing that there are no general solutions and that every organisation must find its own answer.