The first business book I picked up and enthusiastically read, because it was inherently readable and extraordinarily interesting, was In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman. In a real sense it changed my life because it was the catalyst that led to my moving out of academia into the “real” world of public accounting.
Many “critics” have since delighted in pointing out that many of the case study companies discussed in the book have subsequently declined or disappeared. These people are cut from the same cloth as the critics who point to the failures that were heralded as successes by Jim Collins in Built to Last and Good to Great – interestingly as an aside, these critics don’t seem to have contributed anything of value themselves other than criticism.
Peters and Waterman suggested in their book that excellence is associated with the practice of 7 essential disciplines. When I go down the list I can’t help feeling there haven’t been too many more great insights in management thinking since 1982. Here’s the list:
- A bias for action – do something, anything!
- Stay close to the customer – listen well, observe carefully, anticipate needs, accommodate wants.
- Create an environment that encourages entrepreneurship, autonomy and innovation – picked up and run with by Dan Pink and his thoughts on Motivation 3.0 as well as the Results Only Work Environment ideas from Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson.
- Recognize rank and file employees as fountains of knowledge that, when tapped into, improves productivity and quality – the knowledge worker bandwagon hitched onto this although Drucker understood this years before.
- Embrace a hands-on value-driven management philosophy – is there any other management philosophy that could reasonable be expected to endure?
- Stick to your knitting (core business) – this was a novel idea during the “diversification” era of the 80s, it’s since been found to be the right strategy e.g. GE, Apple, Google, Southwest Airlines, IKEA ….. [Thought added in 2022] One of the challenges with this is to actually define your core business boundary and core capabilities e.g . what is the core business of Amazon is it multi-faceted online retailing, the provision of web services, small business sales platform …
- Create a lean flat organization structure that enables you to adapt quickly to change and opportunity – put into play by Jack Welch and his philosophy of a “boundryless organization.”
In my opinion, excellence is within the reach of everyone but grabbed by relatively few. It doesn’t matter what industry you care to choose the distribution of bottom line performance is skewed with more than half the firms exhibiting below average profitability. My take on this is that it reflects a tolerance for mediocrity that robs people of their potential. Another possibility is that no one has reached out and offered to help these poor souls …. but that’s another story.
What got me going on this was a short video Tom Peters put together about Tom Watson’s (Founder of IBM) view on what it takes to pursue excellence: