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Of Wars and Michaelangelos

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[Photo of The Circle of Innovation]Some business books are real clunkers.

They come in flashy covers with glowing testimonials encouraging you to take the wild ride — but you end up being taken for a ride instead. Upon reading the first few chapters, you find the author lacks substance, his ideas hopelessly dated, his writing clichéd and tiresome.

Here are two books that I guarantee won’t waste your time. For one thing, you can read them sporadically. Also, they won’t delude you into thinking that you can follow some strange-sounding formula to success. And because they’re keepers, they’re pretty good value for money.


The thing I love about Tom Peters books are that they’re keepers. Although Peters admits that he sometimes takes his words back, most of the principles he outlines in 1997’s The Circle of Innovation are timeless.


I’m tempted to enumerate all 15 principles here. But as I hate book reviews that give everything away, I’ll just mention a few choice morsels to convince you that this book is a worthy addition to your library.(If you’ve never read a Tom Peters book, you’re missing out.)

To begin with, Peters can give complicated thinkers and planners a lesson in simplicity. (Much of the miscommunication and inefficiency that happens in the workplace is, I believe, a result of two things: talking at cross purposes and making too many complicated explanations!)

Three principles stand out in this book. You will probably disagree since your business experience is probably vastly different from my own or any reviewer’s.

The Destroyer and the Eraser

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Have you ever said this? I’m guilty of not only saying it but making my turnaround time depend on it. So what’s wrong with this statement? Peters says (and has been proven right!) that “If it ain’t broke, BREAK IT!”

Or somebody else (most probably your competition) will break it for you. In short, DESTRUCTION IS COOL (Principle No. 2).

Any leader in any organization shouldn’t be too afraid (OR TOO LAZY!) to attack a concept, product, system, whatever.

Likewise, any employee shouldn’t immediately resent being asked to change, repeat, or totally junk a task or project. Peters says destruction and organized forgetting are required to stay competitive. In short, YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT AN ERASER (Principle No. 3).

He points out that IBM had to learn this the hard way. IBM went from mainframes to microcomputers to PCs, Peters says, but kept its “mainframe mentality.” Its decline during the PC era was only arrested when Lou Gerstner, whom Peters calls Mr. Forget-It, took over.

Unit of One

Peters says: WE ARE ALL MICHELANGELOS (Principle No. 4). If you don’t staff your company with innovators, you will lose to a competitor that does. Peters differentiates mere “jobholders” from businesspersons — the Michelangelos, the innovators. Each businessperson in an organization should wow clients, should look to the future, should care about quality of service, should be concerned about the bottom line.

Peters cites the case of a housekeeper of a floor at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. She is authorized to spend up to US$2,000 to fix any client’s problem. Peters says, “I know lots of people with exalted titles (like Vice President), who can’t spend US$2,000 without six signatures!”

Being staffed by units of one gets results. The Ritz-Carlton is one of the rare service companies to win a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

Let me end this review in Peters’ tabular style. You won’t regret checking out this book if

- You hate meandering explanations;

- You hate long-winded, text-heavy business books;

- You hate self-help books and regard business books as pricier ripoffs.

“A strategy usually cannot kill a culture, but a culture can kill a strategy.” This book is packed with nuggets of wisdom like that.

The Michaelsons write in a simple enough manner. But in the age of ultra user-friendly authors, such as Tom Peters (whom they quote, by the way) this book isn’t exactly an easy read. Still, it’s great plane fare and guaranteed to last you an entire business trip and then some.

Some parts of the book are filled with stuff many of us already know (e.g., SWOT analysis) and some statements are quite obvious (“In trying to rescue failing organizations, there is a point beyond which persistence of effort become folly.”) However, much of it is versa- tile enough even for the non-sales person to appreciate — the anecdotes, and real-life examples, for instance.

Did you know that Fred Smith first came up with the idea for FedEx in college? He wrote a paper on it. His Yale professor’s comment: “The concept is interesting and well formed, but in order to earn better than a C, the idea must be feasible.”

Since this book was written in 2003, some stories (like those of Starbucks, Domino’s, etc.) may seem stale.Yet strategies are presented in such a straightforward manner that you’re bound to get fresh insights.

- “Management: Be consistently predictable.”

- “[Great captains] did not copy, they learned.”

- “Copying from your competitor can take you in the wrong direction.”

My only other complaint is that the battle analogies get tiring after a while. But you kind of expect that, I guess, if you pick up a book founded on Sun Tzu’s principles.

If you decide to pick this up, my advice is: Read in short doses so you can remember things better. And don’t try to read the chapters in the order in which they’re presented. Scan and start wherever it catches your fancy.

print ed: 11/07

 

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