Tom Peters

Arrogance makes the world go round—the world of innovation at any rate. Examine the birth, life and death of an idea. Arrogance determines each stage.

You get an idea from a customer, from a novel, while dousing yourself in the shower. Usually nothing comes of it. (After research shows that we have about 90 thoughts per minute.) But now and again, one clicks. You begin to study it, chat up a friends, do a touch of library research. It usually dies at this juncture; but once in awhile one slips through the gate; your interest is piqued.

Now your objectivity wanes. You start selectively “seeing things” associated with the idea. And what psychologists call cognitive dissonance kicks in: The idea must be neat, or you wouldn’t be spending so much time on it!

Your attachment becomes an irrational obsession, a success prerequisite. So many land mines loom in the real world that only zealots have a prayer of creating the next CNN, Post-its, or USA Today. (George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself … all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Peter Drucker: “Whenever anything is being accomplished, it is being done … by a monomaniac with a mission.”)

Most smart, obsessed people are not Steve Jobs or Ted Turner. You never hear of them. Why? They fail. For any of a million loosely connected reasons—state of the technology, customer needs, competitor strengths, tight market for financing, alignment of the stars—their obsession is a mismatch with the environment at the time. (What if Jobs and Steve Wozniak had invented the Apple computer three years before they did? What if I had co-written In Search of Excellence in 1979 rather than 1982? See my point?

So obsession does anything but guarantee success. On the other hand, a lack of obsession does guarantee failure.

OK, you turn out to be the one-in-a-million grabbed by the brass ring. Your wallet bulges. The press takes a shine to you. Customers applaud heartily. Employees made rich overnight adore you. Messages to your mind: (1) What a great product/service I invented! (2) What a terrific guy I am!

You continue to work like the devil, fueled by all the attention. You find an alter-ego for your spurting firm’s No.2 slot, and prosperity surges thanks to her or his managerial talents.

Then a new, arrogant, obsessive upstart comes along—with a quirky restaurant on your block, a new flavor of software or personal computer in your niche. Now what?

You make a superficial change here or there. But a quick review of your press clippings and personal-assets statement convinces you that you alone know the turf. So you fight fundamental change tooth and nail. (See the IBM story, in the book Father, Son & Co., of the elder Tom Watson’s fierce defense of punch-card machines when threatened by computers. You fire your No.2 for insisting that major overhauls are necessary, and seek out another and another (like sick folks pursuing some doctor, somewhere, to assure them that their fatal disease isn’t).

But that clever new competitor fails in spite of himself, for some random set of reasons. Your faith in you is renewed.

And then another upstart comes along. The cycle repeats itself for awhile, maybe 10 years. But when the genuine article finally arrives, your basically unrefurbished gem is badly tarnished. You’re history.

Such is the pathology of arrogance. Can’t live without it. Can’t live with it.

But hold on, you protest. At some point I will listen. Don’t bet on it! History (political, commercial, etc.) says you won’t listen until it’s too late; in fact, the harder the evidence against you, the more complex and convincing the rationale you’ll construct to explain it away; in the end only Chapter 11 will silence you.

Of course, some firms do last, a 3M, Johnson & Johnson, or General Electric. (And IBM, once Watson Jr. hogtied the old man.) The first three, not coincidentally, are blessed with radically decentralized organizations that support lots of monomaniacs on the loose; the fourth, IBM, is suffering today from a shortage of such nuts.

Lessons to be learned: (l) over the long haul there’s scant hope for corporate renewal unless numerous, wild-eyed egomaniacs are running crazy on your premises—with performance agreements that keep you from canning them for reasons other than moral turpitude; (2) Consider the Thurgood Marshall stratagem: The Justice insists that he’ll step down when his wife tells him it’s time—make such a deal with your wife or best friend; (3) Find a hobby, like racing cars at 170 mph; try to shift your obsession. (Not likely.)

Proposing these few, lame antidotes to the founder’s once-useful arrogance is one of my objectives. The other is to insist that arrogance is the spice of life, no matter obnoxious its manifestations and no matter how toxic it becomes to its carrier (person, organization). Not comprehending essential role arrogance plays in creation and renewal is as dangerous as underestimating its dysfunctional side-effects.

(C)1990 TPG Communications.

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