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Wednesday November 16 2005

I have always rated Tom Peters as a business writer, and, because I just now discovered it, I am now about to add his blog to my blogroll.  This blog is called Tom Peters in psychobabbly all lower case letters with no space between the tom and the peters, and with an exclamation mark at the end, his point presumably being that, he’s not your usual business bloke in a suit.  Not many are these days, I guess.

I know extremely little about business, having hardly done any at all, but it seems to me that Peters has made a succession of pretty good points, quite well, and more than quite entertainingly, entertainment being central to his message.  I have liked him ever since I first read In Search of Excellence.

I’m not completely sold on the guy, partly because, partly for the same reasons I’m not, so many others aren’t.  Much has been made, in particular, of the fact that many of the “excellent” companies in In Search of Excellence didn’t subsequently do very well.  Yes, that is a problem I do agree.  But then, who does know how to predict business success?  Does this mean that companies should try to be mediocre.  Perhaps, in a way, it does - see below.

More seriously, from the point of view of whether you actually like Tom Peters, is that many find his relentless and quasi-religious upbeatness exhausting or worse, and maybe I would too if I had dealings with him personally.  He might, you could say, bring out the old-fashioned Englishman in me.  Many is the time when some stranger has tried to tug my heartstrings from a stage with overcooked rhetoric of one kind or another, and I have folded my arms, concreted over my face, and just waited for it to end.

Every time I hear the word “passion” misused to mean, “I am really quite interested in it given that I am paid to be”, which happens a hell of a lot nowadays, I feel a little ill.  You can’t switch on passion like an electric light, but lots of people use the word as if you could.  The second Tom Peters book, I seem to recall, was called A Passion for Excellence.  That was when all this passion crap started, if I am not mistaken.

You can’t fake passion, which one of the many reasons why I have never purchased the services of a prostitute.  It is not that I think that it is particularly immoral to buy or sell it, simply that the “it” that I want is not something she will be selling.  She may, maybe (think Jane Fonda in Klute), be selling the pretence of passion, but for me that would be worse than nothing.

But, if I ever attended a Tom Peters show, I would at least start by giving the guy the benefit of the doubt.

He is entertaining and somewhat outrageous for a reason.  One of his more significant observations goes approximately: all business is show business.  The world is full of people who prefer show business to business business, because show business is so much more fun.  So, says Peters, make business business more like show business.  Make it appeal to the emotions, and not just to the wallet and, if you are lucky, the intellect.  Go for excellence as in excellence exclamation mark, rather than as in some arithmetised formula which merely somewhat misdefines it, like: 95% right.

The trouble is that chasing that last 5% in a swirl of exclamation marks can sometimes be very bad business.  Numbers do count, and are often extremely well worth counting, and getting seventy out of a hundred is often plenty good enough.  Some customers are not worth satisfying.  Which are no doubt all points which Peters has answered a million times and more at his many many highly priced roadshow type seminar revival meetings.

I also remember being impressed by a book written by the guy who co-wrote The Pursuit of Excellence with Peters, a bloke called Waterman.  Waterman split with Peters before A Passion for Excellence, as I recall it.  I suspect that Waterman feels as I do about passion.  Search was quite enough for him thankyou.

In his book (now long out of print it would seem), Waterman made much of the value of calmly looking at “friendly” numbers, as well as getting excited about being excellent.  I especially recall a chapter about the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.  There was no lack of passionate excellence at the SFSO, although no doubt some were more passionate than others as is the way with all orchestras.  But what did orchestral “excellence” actually mean?  What did it consist of?  Waterman looked at numbers, like number of recordings made, and just counted them, without any exclamation marks.  Concentrating on such numbers is often what success is all about.  Don’t forget about excellence, but sometimes, loud and exclamation marked i.e. rather forced and frenetic, enthusiasm is about the only thing a business does have, and the answer is to calm down and do some thinking.  Get the numbers right, get the money coming in, do the job well, meet deadlines, blah blah blah, and let the passion take care of itself.

However, I suspect that Peters would agree with quite a lot of the above.  Having thought about passion and being a reasonably honest guy, he presumably has thought about the difference between it and the mere pretence of it.

Anyway, I will be looking some more at his blog.

If only because I learned at it today that one of my earliest favourite business writers, Peter Drucker, has just died.  I missed that until now.

It seems to be a real blog.  Peters himself is actually writing it, and there are real thoughts there, not just puffery for his latest little product or show.  Plus lots of links to other good stuff.  Okay, others are also writing for it, but why not?  He has minions.  Let them express themselves.

I wonder what she (who is doing very well, by the way – yes I do actually know someone who might one day soon be a genuine Business Success) thinks of Tom Peters.  Probably an old-school marketer and hence the spawn of Satan.  Never mind, I like him.

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