Monday, December 08, 2008


What is "practical"

Here is the list from Tom Peters referred to in my last post. Notice the title words "The" (not "A" or "My") and in particular "Practical".

The “Top 27: Twenty-seven Practical Ideas That Will Transform Every Organization

1. Learn to thrive in unstable times—our lot (and our opportunity) for the foreseeable future.

2. Only putting people first wins in the long haul, good times and especially tough times. (No "cultural differences" on that one! Colombia = Germany = the USA.)

3. MBWA/Managing By Wandering Around. Stay in touch!

4. Call a customer today!

5. Train! Train! Train! (Growing people outperform stagnant people in terms of attitude and output—by a wide margin.)

6. "Putting people first" means making everyone successful at work (and at home).

7. Make "we care" a/the company motto—a moneymaker as well as a source of pride.

8. All around the world, women are an undervalued asset.

9. Diversity is a winning strategy, and not for reasons of social justice: The more different perspectives around the table, the better the thinking.

10. Take a person in another function to lunch; friendships, lots of, are the best antidote to bad cross-functional task accomplishments. (Lousy cross-functional communication stops companies and armies alike.)

11. Transparency in all we do.

12. Create an "Innovation Machine" (even in tough times). (Hint: Trying more stuff than the other guy is Tactic #1.)

13. We always underestimate the Innovation Advantage when 100% of people see themselves as "innovators." (Hint: They are if only you'd bother to ask "What can we do better?")

14. Get the darned Basics right—always Competitive Advantage #1. (Be relentless!)

15. Great Execution beats great strategy—99% of the time. (Make that 100% of the time.)

16. A "bias for action" is a "bias for success." (Great hockey player Wayne Gretzky: "You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.")

17. No mistakes, no progress! (A lot of fast mistakes, a lot of fast progress.) (Australian businessman Phil Daniels: "Reward excellent failures. Punish mediocre successes.")

18. Sometimes "little stuff" is more powerful than "big stuff" when it comes to change.

19. Keep it simple! (Making "it" "simple" is hard work! And pays off!)

20. Remember the "eternal truths" of leadership—constants over the centuries. (They say Nelson Mandela's greatest asset was a great smile—you couldn't say no to him, even his jailors couldn't.)

21. Walk the talk. ("You must be the change you wish to see in the world."—Gandhi)

22. When it comes to leadership, character and people skills beat technical skills. (Emotional Intelligence beats, or at least ties, school intelligence.)

23. It's always "the little things" when it comes to "people stuff." (Learn to say "thank you" with great regularity. Learn to apologize when you're wrong. Learn the Big Four words: "What do you think?" Learn to listen—it can be learned with lots and lots of practice.)

24. The "obvious" may be obvious, but "getting the obvious done" is harder said than done.

25. Time micro-management is the only real "control" variable we have. (You = Your calendar. Calendars never lie.)

26. All managers have a professional obligation to their communities and their country as well as to the company and profit and themselves. (Forgetting this got the Americans into deep trouble.)

27. EXCELLENCE. ALWAYS. (What else?)

So...just what is "practical"? Are these ideas strongly practical, as in capable of being put into practice, or are they just good-sounding ideas? The Economist Style Guide recommends using "practical" in place of "actionable", on grounds of taste rather than difference in meaning, so let us treat the two as synoymous. In which case just how many points on this list are actually actionable by a normal business leader or manager? take "Learn to thrive in unstable times". It's like saying "learn to thrive in the wild". There is no practical guidance here; it's a STRATEGY for survival. And given that Peters himself acknowledges this is nowadays a de facto necessity, you would think it hardly needed saying. How to do so, he doesn't say, so where is "practical"?

Or take "All around the world, women are an undervalued asset." What is the actionable transformative tip here exactly? Employ them? Market to them? Listen to them? What Peters provides here is the most general statement imaginable. I agree with the sentiment 100% but it is just a sentiment, not "practical", as he claims.

And "Get the darned Basics right". Yes indeed, but what exactly constitutes "the Basics"? Giving clients what you think they would like rather than what they ask for, as Peters himself has done in this case? I don't think so. A "practical", actionable list will NOT be 27 points long. It will encourage focus. It will not repeat itself. It will not be vague sloganeering; "practical" needs precision in the briefing. And it will translate smoothly into actions - the very definition of actionable. This list was nothing like that. Excellence Always (and how actionable is that?) it was not.

I was disappointed in this list, for its inconsistency, as well as its failure to meet client spec. It's downright impractical, in all but a couple of points. I was disappointed too in the discussion that followed, in which Tom Peters justified himself by saying that the client was delighted, and after all he knows a thing or two about customer service by this time. Other familiar voices clustered in his defence like white cells. There were one or two who agreed with my criticism, but the dominant tone - I'm sorry to say - was that if Tom Peters does it, it must be all right. Which I think is the most dangerous comfort zone for anyone to get into. It's exactly what brought about the current financial crisis; it's exactly what has brought the Big Three to their knees. I was very sorry that Peters seemed more interested in not being wrong than acknowledging that someone might have a point. Feet of clay time.

Oh, and Peters' most enthusiastic acolyte called me "arrogant and ignorant" for the message at the end of my last post! Guilty as charged.


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