The "PSF" "Debate"

My colleague Madeleine McGrath, co-head of our UK firm, is a practicing devotee of the “PSF” idea—and more aware, than anyone else I know, of what, perversely, a hard sell it is. (I say “perversely,” because the “PSF delivered-value concept” is, among other things, actually the only sound defense against the international outsourcing tsunami. Yes … only.)

She offered this Comment to yesterday’s Schlumberger post:

Tom’s first publication on the subject of PSF (that I possess) is a Tom Peters Group Occasional Paper dated 1988, so, I can see why the idea could be described as “dated.” However, my experience of working with Tom and helping our clients apply his ideas is that the lag between the idea being presented and its more general application can take many years. For heaven’s sake, In Search of Excellence, now over 25 years old, still attracted a massive audience to hear Tom speak in London last October.

However, I think there is an important reason why the PSF thinking has been difficult to apply, aside from the unhelpful associations that Ben [Commenter] mentions. [PSF equated with overpaid, under-experienced MBA-consultants working for a Big 4 firm.] PSF requires a major mindset shift for many well established organisations in that it puts the “professional” at the centre of the organisation. What great PSFs know is that they must find the world’s best professionals in their field, and then create a context for them where they can do their best work—in which case the practice benefits and they get great rewards. My experience is that this orientation goes against the much more scientific and rational approach to management that has become embedded in much western corporate thinking of the 80s and 90s. Becoming “talent centric” is not a quick or easy journey, and requires leaders who have ambition to be different.

I am convinced that the PSF orientation will be at the heart of the revolution that is undoubtedly taking place in organisations over the globe, and that its impact will eventually be as great as that of the production line thinking that dominated the organisation thinking of the 20th Century.

To try and reflect the much more expansive potential of PSF thinking, in Tom Peters Company, we describe the approach as the “Future Shape of the Winner.”

The big question is, who is “up for” this massive shift in thinking? It’s more often seen in start-up companies, particularly in the high-tech arena, where talent is so critical for success. But you might argue it is much easier for them as they have no status quo to disturb. What about existing organisations—can they change?? Examples like the one Tom has pointed to in Schlumberger seem the most promising approach for larger organisations—find a piece of the business that can be “PSF’d” and give them the scope to try to be different.

[TP note: I am 100% sold on the “PSF-ing” as the best-almost only way to add high value, à la IBM and Schlumberger, mentioned in yesterday’s Post. Before being canned for other reasons, CEO Bob Nardelli was doing this at Home Depot—”PSF-ing” the “retailer” by creating turnkey client (contractor, homeowner) packaged services, such as economical employee healthcare programs and turnkey accounting services for his small-contractor customers—I’m convinced it would have been a big, “transforming” winner. Madeleine has more passion for this than I do—and the tenacity of a bulldog. But over my very noisy moral objections, she and her colleagues last year renamed our related service “Future Shape of the Winner,” as she said in her Comment. That was solely because that in a decade she was rarely able to light a fire with the “PSF” fuel. I am convinced that the principal reason is what I call the “parasite axiom.” As in, “Those accountants-consultants-lawyers-ad guys are parasites—they’ve never done a real day’s work in their adult lives.” That may or may not have once been true, but now it’s downright silly. When it comes to “parasites” and “real people,” the parasites have won out. We don’t need the product of most of our work, except to keep us occupied. Basic food and shelter, the relentless pursuit of the species for millennia, perhaps occupy less than 5 percent of us in developed economies. The rest of us are at work on frivolous things—iPod design, software creation, accessories for Hummers, “home entertainment centers,” fashion goods—and what isn’t a fashion good these days including toilet-bowl mops and screwdrivers, courtesy Target et al. Brink Lindsey, in his superb book The Age of Abundance, argues persuasively that we are only a few scant decades beyond an economy geared to produce necessities. And the fact is that we are floored by the whole thing. Some primal instinct says that if I, Tom-male, am not out tossing spears, or at least working in Welsh mines or Pittsburgh’s steel mills surrounded by the fires of Hell, well, I’m not a real guy. So the world of “soft” value-added, the economy based on “desk stuff,” is still troublesome to us. No matter, Madeleine and I shall soldier on, me with my “PSF,” she with her more commercially viable “Future Shape of the Winner.” I sleep well, damn well—because in one of those veeeeery rare cases, I know I’m on the right track with this—and I am certain, yes, certain, that “The Schlumberger Solution” is the bedrock of our new economy for you and me and Schlumberger alike.]

Tom Peters posted this on January 9, 2008, in Strategies.
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