Tom Peters

Our organizational images stink. Not just “pyramids” (heavy steep, immobile), but even “network,” “spiderweb,” “Calder mobile.” The new images are a mighty step forward, but they still miss the core idea of tomorrow’s surviving corporation: dynamism.

Hence my latest notion: The company as carnival. Consider these attributes:

1. Parts and wholes. Think of the day spent with the kids at the Big Apple Circus last August, or a trip to Disneyland. The overall image that lingers is central to our repeat purchase decision. Yet we largely experience parts—a ride, a concert, a horse show, the booth where you hurl baseballs at wooden milk bottles to win the tacky Kewpie doll.

2. The booth. As carnival organizer, you must think booth. The booth is the pearl. Excellence is the booth. (Or not.) A booth requires a champion, an architect, a contractor—and all-important front-line people who staff it for low pay, or as volunteers. Just as one spunky flight attendant can enliven a flight, a peppy person in the booth makes all the difference.

3. The “underpark.” Carnivals are about excitement and festivity. But we’ll think twice about coming back if the portable toilets are dirty (or scarce), or the parking is far away and overpriced. The “underpark” at Disney is the well-oiled, no-nonsense, unheralded, unseen mechanism that permits the surface frenzy to proceed without a glitch.

4. Microeconomy. A carnival is the ultimate marketplace. Fickle/”cruel” customers make hundreds of choices each hour: to stop at this booth or event, to skip that one. Carnival chiefs track booth/event attendance as carefully as retailers track hour-to-hour item sales off the shelf. They engage in a constant process of creation and destruction: removing a booth or act that can’t draw a crowd, refreshing an old favorite, pursuing exciting acts and new ideas.

5. Same/different. The carnival boss, like the corporate boss, must address a prickly issue: Customers want “their” carnival the same, and they want it different. They want those clean toilets and their favorite rides/attractions from last year. But they won’t keep coming back unless they’re regularly surprised by new offerings.

6. A moving target. The excitement and frustration of creating/managing/ maintaining a carnival is that the darn thing won’t stay put. Carnivals have a completely different personality from one day to the next. Or one hour to the next—due to weather, a different crowd in the afternoon than in the evening, whatever. Moreover, the carnival switches character from city to city and, of course, from year to year.

7. Low overhead, multi-entrepreneurial. A bare-bones staff of three (a chief, an accountant/computer ace, an administrative specialist), working out of a dingy, 200-square-foot, low-rent space, may oversee a traveling carnival with 100 booths, 30 rides, 20 special events (that change from town to town), and an annual attendance in the millions. The carnival is the ultimate in “networked” or subcontracted events: Tents, toilets and attractions are the work of entrepreneurs. Yet it all must add up, day after shifting day, to a coherent whole.

8. The customer is the carnival. Some carnivals sizzle and pop. Others bore. Rides, booths and the people who staff them are crucial, but the customer determines success. Beyond booking the right acts, the chief must work like the devil to engage and excite the customer. That means a good start in the parking lot if you’re smart (Disney expends enormous energy on this seeming trifle), enthusiastic ticket takers, lots of toilets, wandering clowns that bring the zest directly to the customer, and a layout that consciously promotes excitement and involvement. The carnival “experience” is, ultimately, the memory of the buzz of thousands mingling.

9. Dynamics. Say “carnival” and you think energy, surprise, fun. The mark of the carnival—and what makes it most different from a day at the office—is its dynamism. Dynamism is its signature, the reason we go back. To create and maintain a carnival is never to get an inch away from dynamic imagery. As chief, you must feel it in your fingertips, be guided by it in every decision.

Economics is fun! Real economics, that is, not the classroom variety. Real economics is about entrepreneurs, births, and deaths of products and companies, oddball reasons that a product/service takes off now, ever or never. The essence of real economics is dynamics, though we teach economics as a static discipline—hence, its “dismal science” moniker.

Today’s global economic dance is no Strauss waltz. It’s break dancing accompanied by street rap. From telecommunications, insurance, and chemicals to hospitality, healthcare, and software, product and service offerings are going berserk, as are the crazy business combinations that produce them. The firm today is much more like a carnival than a pyramid along the Nile. The practical point for leaders of today’s organizations: Using dynamic imagery, thinking of yourself as running a carnival, and eradicating all forms of static thinking will help point you toward the right structure and strategy for these woozy times.

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

All rights reserved.