IBM teaches us to get closer to our customers. Then its customers change (from mainframes to PCs and workstations), and Big Blue is left holding the bag -- and 200,000 surplus employees. So much for close to the customer.
Focusing on core competencies (skills, not products) is another hot management strategy. But in his new book, "Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation," MIT Professor Jim Utterback offers irrefutable evidence that most leading companies "follow their core technologies into obsolescence and obscurity."
These days, even "good" news is a mixed blessing. "At a time when Sara Lee is strong and on course for another record year," Chairman John Bryan announced recently, "we must intensify our focus on . . . building our worldwide brands and strengthening our ties to consumers." The occasion of his happy declaration? The announcement of 8,000 to 9,000 layoffs.
Sometimes I think I don't know my left foot from my right. There's nothing I believe for sure. Then I chuckle. Of course I don't know anything for sure.
The best managers understand. They don't overanalyze. Mostly they throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. Wal-Mart CEO David Glass told me that company founder Sam Walton's greatest strength was fearlessness. He'd botch something embarrassingly, then come in the next day raring to go with something else.
Virgin Group chief Richard Branson was described in Newsweek as "easily bored and unreflective"; he also was tagged as having "unbounded curiosity" and "hating negativity." Branson is a doer who has "no guiding corporate strategy," the magazine noted. He admits as much, claiming, "Fun should be a motivator for all businesses," then adds, "With many companies we start, we don't even do the figures in advance. We just feel there's room in the market."
Like Branson, Silicon Graphics chief Ed McCracken scoffs at the idea of formal planning. "When we finish one product-development program, we raise our heads and look around to see what to invent next," he told the Harvard Business Review. "We try to get a sense of what customers might want. . . . Then we put our heads down, engineer like mad and get the product into the marketplace. [Then] we do it all over again."
McCracken added that he couldn't care less if his newest product ousts his current star. Better that Silicon Graphics knock off one of its own than someone else. That story repeats itself in the far different world of retailing. Paul van Vlissingen, chairman of the $10 billion Dutch firm SHV, says, "Once we have appointed our managers, we let them reinvent the wheel. . . . The world is changing so fast you'll always be needing different wheels for changing terrain."
Van Vlissingen dismisses the idea of a uniform corporate culture, as did former Stanford University President Wally Sterling, generally credited with vaulting the institution to the top ranks of global educational and research centers. Asked by a student what Stanford's education philosophy was, Sterling responded, "My philosophy is not to develop a philosophy of education, but instead to try to find the best possible faculty, then to upgrade the breadth and variety of students and provide needed physical plant, and then sit back and see what results."
Toss a match into a bunch of volatile ingredients, then watch what happens.
GE Chairman Jack Welch puts all this in personal terms: "Are you regenerating? Are you dealing with new things? When you find yourself in a new environment, do you come up with a fundamentally different approach? That's the test. When you flunk, you leave." The subject of Welch's queries? Welch.
The search for eternal verities? Mostly rubbish. To accomplish anything in an untidy world (such as McCracken's workstation industry), your product-development team must believe to its marrow that this is the product to end all products. (That's the way I feel when one of my books goes off to the publisher.) Yet, truth is, the real key to success is detaching yourself from today's baby the moment it leaves the doorstep. Let it go. Forget it. And vigorously grasp for the next brass ring with childlike single-mindedness.
Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is in the doing something else. You must take potshots at today's star before you are mimicked. Today's radiantly blooming flowers are tomorrow's mulch.
Don't forget that for a moment. But don't think about it too long, either.
Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; (407) 420-8200.