Hot Times Call for Hot Words

Tom Peters

Want to hold on to your job in the ’90s? Become a “raging inexorable thunder-lizard evangelist”!

So urges former Apple Computer star software developer Guy Kawasaki. Effective product development is mostly a matter of passion and devotion, he says; the best salespersons (evangelists, to him) peddle hot dreams of an exciting tomorrow, not cold technical specifications.

Make no mistake, the marketplace has come unhinged. New products arrive from hither, thither and yon by the hour. “Old” products (1991 models) are dethroned in months; and, often as not, the companies that made them are dethroned, too. Marriott, Imperial Chemical Industries (United Kingdom), Sears and IBM split up. AEG, Daimler-Benz’s electronics arm, cuts its corporate headquarters staff from 940 to 200. GM fires its chairman. In one day in late November, GE, Westinghouse, Kodak, and Martin Marietta shuffle assets worth billions of dollars. (“Shifting deck chairs on the Titanic,” a friend sniffs.)

Despite all this, Walmart CEO David Glass laments the “absolute dearth” of exciting products. Almost everything “new,” he adds, is a pale, carbon copy of yesterday’s offering. What an indictment! Yes, you’ve revved up your “time-based competition” strategy. You’re turning out new products more quickly than ever before. That’s not all bad—unless each one is a dreary replica of the one before.

Boring products come as no surprise. The average seminar participant I work with comes dressed in a drab suit, uses drab language—and noticeably quivers when I suggest that the most likely path to career salvation for the beleaguered and endangered middle manager is to try to get fired. That is, at least go down swinging. Don’t hunker down. Try something. Try anything. Be alive, for heaven’s sake!

I hate sitting in on big-company board meetings. The setting is somber. The people are somber (even after a good quarter). Proposals that come forth have been staffed and re-staffed until every iota of energy has been drained from them. Presenters wear undertaker suits, speak in undertaker tones. Each wooden word has obviously been rehearsed, and then rehearsed again. I often wonder if boardroom denizens would bleed if cut by a razor. (Honest: despite being paid to attend, I never fail to come within an eyelash of nodding off at these confabs.)

At Ben and Jerry’s Homemade (the Vermont ice cream makers) on the other hand, every policy or new product idea is passed through a screen: “Is it weird enough?”

Three hearty cheers! Got the nerve to explicitly add that word and that test to your product-development process? Is it weird enough? Does the average would-be customer say “Wow” or “Neat” or “Holy moly” or “Zounds”‘? (Or “Yuck.” Even that’s better than ”ho hum.” At least it shows you’re pushing the envelope.) If it doesn’t pass the holy moly/zounds test, are you willing to scrap it?

Can you bring yourself, as I suggested in an earlier column, to go out and unabashedly recruit “weirdos”‘? (And use that word?) Rule No.1 in the human resource staffer’s recruiting manual is “no gaps in the applicant’s resume.” How about a new Rule No.1: No hiring him or her unless there is a gap in the resume? Don’t we want the kid who dropped out of MIT in the middle of her sophomore year to travel around the world for 24 months—on a lark? Don’t we want to look for people who, short of chainsaw murders in their past, were discipline problems? These days, I worry about the young person with the lifelong 4.0 gradepoint average who has never been a problem. Bland yesterday, bland tomorrow. It will not do.

Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, one of my all-time heroes, instinctively takes to colorful language. She wants her shops to “thrill.” She seeks out the “anarchists” on her payroll, in hopes that they will keep her big firm alive, obstreperous disrespectful and arthritis-free. “Have fun” tops her official corporate credo. “Love” and “passion” are the animating forces of her firm, she declares. Amen. Amen. Amen.

Can you put fun, love, passion, anarchist and thrill in your official credo, for your 10-person accounting group, your newly opened record shop, or the $50 million division you run? If not, why not?

I can read a “corporate culture” in about five minutes. So can you. Whether the subject is (a) a new restaurant, (b) a corner grocery, or (c) IBM, GM, or GE, you can feel the vibes in a flash. They broadcast “dull” or “exciting” with the utmost clarity. If you’re bored out of your wits in the reception area (after being “badged,” undoubtedly), you’re going to be bored out of your wits with each and every subsequent encounter. Are there exceptions to the rule? Not many.

Kawasaki wants us to be raging, inexorable thunder-lizard evangelists. Roddick hunts for anarchists. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield champion weird. And I want us to breathlessly pursue dramatic failures and flirt with firing. Funny thing, neither I nor Kawasaki nor Roddick nor Cohen nor Greenfield is even being a little bit facetious.

How about it?

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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