Chekhov and Business Strategy

Tom Peters

I recently came across a personal computing column, discussing new laptop models, which provided this advice: “A business trip can be much more profitable when the five-hour plane ride can be spent working on a presentation or bid instead of watching a lousy movie on a tiny screen.” A wave of unspeakable sadness swept over me as I read this sentence.

Why? I fear that the writer states the trade-off accurately, crunching numbers or watching grade-B flicks. I ride on planes more than most readers do. I watch people, especially young men and women, churning the numbers, hour after hour, on the way from San Francisco to New York, Dallas to Atlanta, or Chicago to Denver. They take a break only to watch Eddie Murphy or Clint Eastwood romp across the screen—then back to the numbers, the CRTs, and the spreadsheets.

And I wonder: What do they think? Are they thinking? Is anything even slightly original going on in their heads?

I’m a student of the history of science and innovation. One finding pops out above all others. The most successful scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs draw upon wildly disparate sources (art, movies, sailing, flower arranging) to infuse new life into nagging problems, or to create new combinations of familiar things.

There’s no evidence that traces inspiration—for a corporate vision, a breakthrough drug, or a new sundae topping to “thinking harder about sundaes,” for instance. Instead, a Charles Darwin is inspired at the right moment by a chance reading of Thomas Malthus, and a progressive hospital chief I know gets ideas from a 30-year addiction to theater-going.

When I get on a plane, I look to see who’s reading Chekhov—I’d bet on his or her stock. Or, at least, who are the computer makers reading Mother Jones, Interview, Progressive Grocer (a grocery-trade magazine), or Pit & Quarry (journal of the rock-mining trade)?

I am lucky to have had several mentors whose sense of exploration has rubbed off on me. My consulting career started at Peat, Marwick. My first boss was an avid beekeeper, who regularly contributed to the chief journal in the field. Many of his novel ideas about organic management processes, which he applied to our R&D management problems, were influenced by the intriguing nature of bees.

Later, as a business student at Stanford, I was the charge of a professor with boundless intellectual curiosity. A discussion of any management topic was typically enlarged by analogs from 14th-century politics, arcane mathematical theorems, and the traits of 50-year-old Sauternes. I—and all those who come under his sway—benefit in unexpected ways from his mind’s clever and constant twists and turns.

My boss at McKinsey & Co. held degrees in physics and law (and not in business). When confronting oil exploration issues, he brought both disciplines to bear, along with dabblings in Eastern mysticism and a passion for folksinging. I—and the client—were rewarded time and again by original notions that were influenced by these wide-ranging tastes.

Today, in my small firm, I am counseled by a chief financial officer who was trained as a merchant seaman as well as an accountant. His abiding passions are great fiction and the London and New York theater. He’s a demon when it comes to financial controls—but his sense of humanity, the broadest I’ve encountered, is his real value added.

Each of these close colleagues has taught me a great deal about business and life. Any success that I’ve had in concocting somewhat original management formulations, I attribute directly to their breadth.

Now back to the friendly skies. Over the years, I’ve frequently flown with my mentors. They’ve fallen prey to Clint Eastwood from time to time, and so have I. But none carries a laptop computer, prepares presentations, or otherwise “uses” the hours in the air to crunch numbers. One reads Octavio Paz. Another devours Sherlock Holmes. Another ingests Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the umpteenth time.

These are crazy times, which therefore require crazy solutions. Never has originality—in strategy or organizational design—been at such a premium. And it is my unshakable belief that originality and breadth of mind are identical twins.

So when I’m in the air, I don’t work on these columns, don’t prepare presentations, and don’t fiddle with laptop computers. On my last long trip, from Amsterdam to San Francisco, I read a lengthy essay on leadership passed along by my Stanford mentor—most of the references were pre-1500. I also read Graham Greene’s marvelous new novel, The Captain and the Enemy. The language was lovely, the ideas provocative. What did I learn? I have no idea. But somehow or other, I’m certain that a part of Greene’s novel will sneak, directly or indirectly, into
a business assessment I’ll make for a client.

Most of my clients are confronted with the most staggering problems facing organizational leaders in hundreds of years. I fervently hope that the originality of my advice will occasionally match the profound nature of their concerns. If it does from time to time, I (and they) owe it to Graham Greene and my mentors’ breadth of interests.

The laptop computer is a marvelous tool. But when it comes to describing a business strategy for the 1990s, I wouldn’t trade a single Chekhov short story for the most exotic laptop.

(c) 1988 TPG Communications.

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