When Tom Peters and Robert Waterman published In Search of Excellence, it changed business. Named by NPR as one of the top three business books of the past century, their 1982 work detailed the art of management in a time when there were not dozens upon dozens of major new business books being printed each month.
As unheralded consultants with McKinsey, Peters and Waterman developed eight major themes that defined excellent management and discussed how 40 companies had used these principles to become industry leaders. These tales were so well-received that the book became “the first management blockbuster,” selling more than three million copies in four years.
Over time, however, many of the “excellent” companies used as examples proved to be anything but, with Atari being the most glaring. Furthermore, it was later revealed that the “quantitative” assessments used to identify excellent companies were much more arbitrary than had been disclosed. Peters and Waterman had used their knowledge of the corporate world to determine which companies to profile, but there was never any systematic formula.
Peters’ new work will not face similar controversy. Not intended to be another management Bible, The Little Big Things takes a shotgun approach, cataloging 163 ways to pursue excellence. Peters is not offering any overarching strategy to thrive-he is simply giving readers 500 pages of tenuously connected thoughts on the topic.
Impressively, it works. The overall presentation and feel are less that of a tome and more that of a blog on paper. Snippets and anecdotes are loosely grouped by generic categories like “Change,” “Opportunity” and even “Lunch.” Large, bold sentences allow you to get the gist of the point without ever putting on your reading glasses, and frequent, self-contained call-out boxes feature non sequiturs that are only slightly more half-baked in their mission than whatever the main topic on the page is attempting to achieve.
This may all sound like a chaotic jumble of knowledge. It is. But it is also a refreshing approach to a management genre that is all-too-often professing to be the be-all, end-all authority on the subject.
If Peters’ 1982 work was designed to be a highly polished, all-encompassing narrative, The Little Big Things is an update befitting the modern world. He is merely telling readers that he has acquired some wisdom in the past 30 years that he would like to share. There is no need to digest it all in order. Just open to a page and read an interesting insight.
Flip to page 95, and you will find a World War II anecdote. “General Dwight Eisenhower did the impossible. No, not the successful and history-changing D-Day landing per se. Nor the subsequent march to Germany. His ‘impossible dream’-come true-was to keep the Yanks and the Brits from annihilating each other long enough to hit the beach and get on with the real job at hand!”
On page 138, we read about transatlantic travel. “I was flying to Boston from London on Saturday morning on a seven-hour flight. A professional woman was sitting in front on me. I duly swear, she did not look up once during the entire flight. She produced more on her laptop in those seven hours than I do in a week. Or a month. I’m not touting workaholism here. I am stating the obvious. She or he who works the hardest has one hell of an advantage.”
Page 317 offers about the closest you will find to a typical business mantra. “If, as I fervently believe, randomness rules our lives, then your only (logical) defense must be taking refuge in the message of the so-called law of large numbers. That is, any success follows from trying enough stuff so that the odds of doin’ something right tilt your way.” His conclusion? The ultimate, and perhaps only, surefire winning formula, then, is “SAV: Screw Around Vigorously.”
Perhaps the informal nature of the work and unrefined presentation will be tough for some suits to embrace. It does not align with what they read while earning their MBAs. But, to me, that might be exactly what many executives need to be exposed to-now more than ever.