Fashion Projects. Markets. Tries.

Tom Peters

Fashion. Projects. Markets. Tries. Those four words may be all you need to know about the zany new world of commerce.

1. Fashion. Roll the word around in your mouth and, unless you’re from Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue, a sour taste lingers. What comes to mind: fickle, fleeting, unfair. Yet all goods and services are becoming “fashion” goods. A few years ago, Sony chairman and hardware maven Akio Morita ripped Americans for inattention to manufacturing. In March he certified Sony’s new “software” obsession by signing Michael Jackson to a deal valued at perhaps a billion dollars. Sony is now foursquare in the fashion business.

The San Jose Mercury News, unofficial voice of Silicon Valley, almost reads like Women’s Wear Daily: Sun Microsystems announces a new family of workstations today, then Hewlett-Packard responds, more or less tomorrow. Or visit, with a hundred thousand or so others, the annual Comdex computer-trade show in Las Vegas—then tell me that the new technologies aren’t subject to fashion’s whims.

But even old-line industries now dance to the new beat. Environmentalism is “in”—and almost overnight the major oil companies give us designer gas with new “cleaner than clean” additives. The number of car models doubles in a decade (the ’80s). Friends at grinding-products maker Norton Co. report that the material business has “gone custom.” And the biggest chemical companies are turning out products by the beaker for narrow, one-shot customer use, rather than generics by the rail car load.

2. Projects. It’s elementary: If all business is fashion business, then all of organizational life must become projects. For years I’ve urged decentralization and the destruction of barriers between functions (engineering, manufacturing, finance, etc.). My prescriptions were far too timid. If “fickle” and “fleeting” describe grinding wheels and computers, as well as pop music, then the organizational response must, in its own way, be “fickle” and “fleeting.”

The new “organization” is a collection of ever-changing project teams, each gathering together a unique set of people (and often firms) for a finite period to perform a discrete task. Sure, to succeed there must be solid core technologies (Disney’s “underpark” and “imagineering,” EDS’s problem-solving methodology), but in the end, attacks on fickle markets must be made by fickle mechanisms. Architects, ad agencies, and consultants have long understood this; in fact, the so-called “professional-service firm” is the best role model for tomorrow. After all, the new world’s computer or chemical company is, de facto, a professional-service firm: Its forte is swiftly applying ideas to meet individual, ever-shifting customer needs.

Embracing the project-is-all notion puts to bed half-measures about organization design. The idea of “permanent” middle management, for example, becomes laughable!

3. Markets. Market forces are the only things that can keep you honest and agile enough to survive. The essence of the market economy is its unfairness. Ideas/products/services click with users for reasons far too complex to map—Hula-Hoops, VW Beetles, and Apple IIs take off, when they do, for a jillion indescribable, indecipherable, irrational “reasons.”

In the past, we have praised markets in speeches, but ignored them within our firms. Most decentralization is half-hearted at best. Entrepreneurial incentives for profit-and-loss center managers are paltry. Strategic planning units regularly “bet” that they can outsmart the market. “Overhead” of epic proportions is a given—i.e., support staffs and component producers within the firm are rarely held to market standards.

Once again, accepting the fashion idea demands that we bend to the power and vagaries of the market. The market is cruel to clothing designers and movie makers who aren’t agile enough to respond to its slightest vibration, who retreat into a shell after an embarrassing failure. Such “cruelty” now extends to autos, materials, financial services, the works—and only ramming the market into our firms’ guts will up the odds of contending with today’s brutal commercial pace.

4. Try it. I asked Walmart CEO David Glass what was most special about Sam Walton, the $33-billion firm’s founder. “He’s not afraid to fail,” Glass replied. “He’ll try something. If it doesn’t work, his reaction is, ‘Well, that didn’t work.’ Then he charges into something else.”

Fashion requires a “try it” approach everywhere. Take market research. Anyone not doing it is a fool. On the other hand, anyone using market research as an excuse to delay a new product launch, by even a day, is a bigger fool. Why? You’re in the fickle world of fashion: The connection between seller and buyer will occur for reasons far beyond your comprehension. In the past, you could afford to delay. We played a predictable game—we knew where the sidelines and goal lines were; the other guy played by the same rules we did.

No more. The commercial playing field has traded Astroturf for quicksand. Look carefully at just one week’s catalog offerings that arrive in the mail. Spend a day in the chaotic Ginza district in Tokyo. Hey, welcome to the romance—and horror—of fashion.

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

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