In Search of Autonomy

Tom Peters

In Search of Excellence had its share of mistakes and then some. I shook my head at that thought the other night, looking at a picture showing the book as number one on the best-seller list back in 1983. The good news for my psyche: On the opposite wall of my office was a set of pictures I’d taken of the Berlin Wall coming down. How many of our politicos and pundits predicted that one? Making mistakes leaves one in pretty good company.

My coauthor Bob Waterman and I vastly underestimated the turbulence in the marketplace and wildly overestimated the ability of many fabled firms to adjust. But I think that we did get the essence right—the eight ideas around which the book was organized. Now something else occurs to me. There really aren’t eight ideas, but only one: decentralization/autonomy.

1. A Bias for Action. Translation: “Don’t just stand there, do something.” But to move fast you’ve got to be close to the action, and empowered to bend the rules and experiment. A bias for everyone acting—now—is a bias for wholesale decentralization and autonomy.

2. Close to the Customer. We pleaded with chiefs to put most of their resources close to where the money is made. “Close to the customer” boils down to lots of people listening directly to and quickly doing something about what they hear from the customer—i.e., again, wholesale decentralization, autonomy.

3. Autonomy and Entrepreneurship. It meant just what it said. The role model then, 3M, remains my chief big-firm role model to this day. 3M’s magic potion: big decentralization, big autonomy—from the junior bench scientist to the graying division general manager.

4. Productivity Through People. People get productive when they have a stake, are empowered, constantly trained, informed, and urged to see the job as a matter of perpetual improvement. Guess what that adds up to? Decentralization and the grant of untold autonomy, by traditional standards, to those on the firing line.

5. Hands-On, Value-Driven. “Hands-on” could be, and occasionally is, an excuse for centralization or micromanagement. But our sense of the hands-on boss was the opposite: someone in touch with the real action and those who make it happen, where it happens—rather than a bureaucrat relying for advice on large, distant staffs and sterile, time-consuming analyses. “Value-driven” was about decentralization, too: a thimbleful of overarching values, which make strategic and spiritual sense, energizing large numbers of people. These people in turn have exceptional freedom to roam within that values envelope.

6. Stick to the Knitting. We suggested stepping out into new areas, but only those where you had a discernible comparative advantage due to a core competence. The need to attack hodgepodge conglomeration is still all too obvious: The Europeans, preparing for the Single Market of 1992, seem determined to create huge, unwieldy conglomerates, circa USA 1960. “Stick to the knitting” has by and large been executed for the U.S. economy via the corporate raiders’ dismemberment activities; it’s yet another variety of autonomy, granted in this case to formerly enslaved bureaucrats, who now often own a single-business operation via a leveraged management buyout.

7. Simple Form, Lean Staff. “Simple form” was a plea to excise those formal “matrix” structures whose complexity sapped vitality, and put in place a truly decentralized (i.e., autonomous) divisional structure. As to the lean staff: Dismember those bloated central groups and distribute their essential activities much closer to the action/marketplace.

8. Simultaneous Loose-Tight Properties. This was an ugly phrase in 1982, and it’s an ugly phrase in 1990. But wise practitioners got the point. Concentrate on a few things (e.g., quality comes first; if you agree to a budget or profit target, you’ve got to make it happen or suffer some consequence), but allow astonishing freedom for people to play the game within those few bounds. To be sure, “loose-tight” amounts to centralization as well as to decentralization. But given the nature of our staff- and paper-driven empires, the unmistakable tilt is toward much greater autonomy, much less centralization.

As a reading of the daily business news or a perusal of the latest Harvard Business Review will suggest, there’s mileage left on these eight notions. In fact, a quick-and-dirty content analysis of a few dozen, randomly chosen issues of leading business journals reveals that these topics are the basis for about 75 percent of management articles, up from 10 percent or so in 1975. But don’t get me wrong; this is not meant to be a long-winded act of self-justification. It is rather an effort to say that the eight ideas, which seem to have stood the test of time, are really but one: Decentralize. Grant autonomy. Try it. Test it. If national policy-makers, corporate leaders, factory bosses, and shift supervisors could get just this one point, really get it, a lot of economies, companies, and individuals would be much better

(C) 1990 TPG Communications.

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