"Hard Is Hard"

Bob Waterman and I got our 15 minutes of fame in part by the assertion-slogan-axiom that “Hard is soft. Soft is hard.” In the Age of Strategy, circa 1982, we said it’s the “hard” plans and budgets and #s that are in fact “soft” (fast forward, think Enron); and it’s the “soft” people-customers-relationships-entrepreneurial culture that are truly “hard,” that is, the Bedrock of Excellence.

Well, there are exceptions to every rule, even ours. Big ones, in fact.

Prime Minister Emeritus Lee made miracles in Singapore. The keystone: Singapore works! And work it does, starting with friendly and efficient immigration services in Singapore’s sparkling airport. PM Lee unabashedly micromanaged his island, and at the heart of the matter was ease of doing business—and that started with immigration controls, baggage retrieval, and the speed with which one could get settled downtown and get down to business.

And if the trains and planes don’t run on time? It’s possible that the Greatest of “Soft” (service economy-based) Economic Marvels may face life-threatening consequences.

It took me 2+ hours (!) in snarled traffic yesterday to get from the airport to my hotel just outside of São Paulo. A transit strike turned SP’s nightmarish traffic into whatever is worse than a nightmare. And this on the heels of the air traffic fiasco that led to the sacking of Brazil’s Defense Minister a couple of weeks ago. Perversely, as I rode to town, or the outskirts thereof, I was reading the 0802 International Herald Tribune, which featured on P1 an article titled, “Trains, Planes and Tube: It’s a Right British Mess.” In short, the infrastructure in the UK is broken, shattered actually. And some of the experts quoted in the article argue, correctly as I see it, that the British Economic Miracle is threatened by F$%^ed up infrastructure. PM Lee would doubtless nod in hearty agreement. Wee case in point: I, for one, now effectively refuse to fly to Heathrow. My 300K FF miles I saw on my latest Lufthansa report attest to the fact that I’ve done a damn good job of avoiding Jolly Olde England for the last year. (The cost to British Air is in excess of $50,000 in my solo case. E.G.: On Susan’s and my July trip to Botswana-Kenya, we would normally have left a day early and visited with her stable of English relatives—and spent a few or more pounds on everything from taxis to tea at Fortnum & Mason. Instead we went via KLM through Amsterdam—where, among other things, we spent $800 at the airport on German-made binoculars.)

More perverse still, as I waited in Dulles for my plane to São Paulo, I watched on CNN the first reports of the bridge collapse in the U.S. of A.—another entity beset with Big League “basic” infrastructure woes. And on the more “modern” front, even Dubai, home of the instant construction miracles, is suffering from health that is too rosy—last month’s short trip from downtown to the airport, well, sucked. (Like Singapore, Dubai’s magical strengths also depend on “stuff that works,” which indeed also starts with friendly, efficient immigration services upon arrival.)

“Soft” (people, customers), is indeed “hard”—that Bedrock of Excellence. But let’s never underestimate the fact that “Hard is Hard” too! PM Lee, where are you when we (all) need you?

Tom Peters posted this on August 3, 2007, in Strategies.
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