Managing By Accident

Managing By Accident

Tom Peters

For about 18 months, I have been exercising regularly — walking fast,
variously called “aerobic walking” or “speed walking.” When I started
I could barely manage 1.25 miles at 14.5 minutes per mile; I did this
about four times a week. Today I average five miles at 11.25 minutes,
six or seven times a week. The latter numbers reflect a breakthrough
that occurred during a recent vacation to the French Alps; examining
its origins provides lessons for managers.

I arrived in France determined not to let my walking habit slip; but I
was panicky because our rented house was up at about 5,500 feet. I
imagined the agony of walking at that altitude. Appropriately
chastened, I started tentatively and managed about 1.5 relatively slow
miles and a 750-foot ascent the first day; a victim of my
preconception of agony, I was in agony.

On the second day, my wife and I happened to take a brief after-dinner
drive, discovering a lovely village at the end of our road (where I
walked). It was about 4.5 miles away and up 2,500 feet from us (at
8,000 feet). Getting to that village back became my vague “walking

Over the next few days, as I adjusted to the altitude, walks got
longer, higher, faster. But the village at the end of the road was as
elusive as ever.

The breakthrough came 10 days into our stay. My wife and daughter
wanted to explore a trail beyond the end of our road “I’ll walk up,” I
nonchalantly proclaimed, “and meet you on the far side of the

I took off, walked my usual distance uphill (about 2.5 miles by then),
and ran low on oxygen. But I’ll be darned if I was going to be
discovered in a panting heap by the roadside. I know I can walk fast,
but not speed walk, almost any distance; that’s what I determined to
do — and did. I made it to the village before Kate and Sarah arrived
by car and greeted them by holding out an insouciant hitchhiker’s

The next day I speed walked to within a half-mile of the village. The
day after, I made it to the village. Two more days and I’d passed the
village and gone another half-mile up a steep trail. I ended the trip
routinely walking seven to nine miles, ascending over 2,500 feet at a
fast clip. When I got home to Vermont, where my walk had plateaued for
months at 3.5 miles and 12 minutes, I began to walk 4.5 to six miles
at an 11.25 minute average.

This time-compressed vignette reveals the typical tangle associated
with the accomplishment of anything. And I grossly
oversimplified even in this trivial case: Suppose Kate and Sarah had
gotten the urge to ramble past the village five rather than 10 days
into our trip; at that early juncture, I’d have had plenty of reason
not to take on the big goal. In any event, here are some “lessons”
from the mountain.

Memorable goals help, and most emerge by chance. I
accidentally discovered my village in the mist and attributed all
sorts of heroic properties to it. Before that, my abbreviated walk was
just a miserable, painful trek leading nowhere except up, up, up.

Emotion is essential. There was no way I was not
going to meet Sarah and Kate at the end of that road.

You do what you have to do. My agreement to meet Sarah and
Kate at the village meant, simply, that I had to get there. I did.

How you do it is irrelevant, but once you’ve done it, it’s
I “decided” that it didn’t matter how slowly I walked to the
village; so I made it — slowly. The point is, I made it. The
following day I did it fast, simply because I knew I could do it at

Once done, it takes. Once the French experience had occurred,
previously unthinkable feats became, without ado, routine back in

None of it was planned. Beyond a vague desire to keep up the
walking habit on vacation, I could not have imagined such perfect and
complex circumstances for spurring me to bust loose from my prior,
persistent “limits.”

Are these lessons from a walk in the country applicable to the complex
world of business? I believe so: (1) Treat accidents as allies;
effective leadership consists of opportunistically responding to
accidents, not wasting precious time lamenting the unfairness of
untoward circumstances (weak knees, steep hills). (2) Make room for
people to become self-motivated (e.g., promote accidents and cheer-
lead for those who respond to them); only goals that we discover
ourselves and which give us an ego stake (“meet Sarah and Kate at the
village or bust”) will animate us to continuously improve performance.
(3) Don’t overplan; the typical plan is meaningless, the goals
lifeless — and everything changes in the process anyway.

“Society has become unmanageable as a result of management,” writes
researcher Henry Mintzberg. “Professional management is … an
invention that produced gains in organizational efficiency so great
that it eventually destroyed organizational effectiveness.” That loss
of effectiveness, Mintzberg argues, comes from ignoring the
“commitment of individual flesh-and-blood human beings.” Managing by
accident, making friends with happenstance and enemies of lifeless
plans, is a primary antidote to professional management run amok.

(C) 1990 TPG Communications.

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