Mastering the Control Contradiction

Tom Peters

There’s no more confusing, frustrating, elusive topic than control. I believe that we are not, by and large, in control of our destinies; we are (individual, firm, nation) victims or beneficiaries of timing and luck. Psychologist Gregory Bateman called the belief in selDays of Thunder, “Control is an illusion, you infantile egomaniac. Nobody knows and nobody controls anything.”) Furthermore, I think that as leaders, if we own up to the role of timing and luck, we can greatly improve our chances of success.

The catch: We desperately need to believe that we are in control of events. Only high self-esteem and a sense of responsibility for results boost us from bed on rainy mornings.

Consider the case for chance. To be sure, the success of an IBM is a saga of talented people, working like the devil. But world brims with talented people who work like the devil. The chief difference between IBM and a host of no-names: good luck. Due to happenstance, founder Tom Watson Sr. began his career selling pianos to farmers and toiling at progressive National Cash Register. As a result, he launched modern IBM in 1913 with a fanatic devotion to service and people. Following World War II, the company almost missed out on computers, precisely because Watson Sr. was too intent on perfecting service for yesterday’s products. Fortunately, the boss’s prodigal son returned at the right moment and pushed computers hard. The company developed good products, but still distinguished itself mainly through service. Just as fortunately for IBM, competitors, led by engineers, were enchanted by the new technology—and dismissive of the “soft” skills that made IBM stand out.

I contend, then, that IBM’s greatest days, 1960–1980, were largely a product of chance: The firm’s roots led it to fortuitously emphasize customer care over technology in an era when computers were unreliable and customers’ computer operations were usually run by amateurs. When the worm turned—machines needed less service and performed more sophisticated tasks; experts managed customers’ information systems—IBM’s unchanging preoccupation led it to miss many a boat.

I could cite hundreds of like examples, from football to fashion. The upshot: That Lady Luck rules is no call to cower in a corner. Instead, you can design strategies precisely aimed at her seduction. All boil down to incubating many strains of seed in many varieties of soil. To wit, implementing radical decentralization, providing enormous entrepreneurial incentives, and encouraging obstreperous champions to run rampant, overseen by a minuscule central staff. In short, the greater the number of independent, energetic, and determined people trying new stuff, the more likely you will flourish. It’s about that simple.

Such a strategy is easy to articulate. But it masks that whopping managerial Catch-22. You will only undertake a many seeds, many soils approach if you share my belief: that you are essentially out of control; and only a deluge of independent tries can edge the success odds your way. But if you buy that unnerving line, you mustn’t tip your hand. Why? Because it is imperative that your potential all-stars are bursting with optimism; otherwise, they’ll hang back around the dugout and never get in enough vigorous licks to improve their, in truth, minuscule odds of success. (Psychologist Shelley Taylor examines this phenomenon in her provocative book, Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind. “Decades of psychological wisdom have established contact with reality as a hallmark of mental health,” she writes; yet most healthy people “regard themselves, their circumstances, and the future as considerably more positive than is objectively likely or than reality can sustain.”)

If all this weren’t confounding enough, researchers Michael Hannan and John Freeman add yet another dimension to the control contradiction in their masterful book, Organizational Ecology. Successful companies, they report, are—by definition— “grooved,” doing a marketable task well (the same way, day in and day out); however, those deep grooves (providing responsive service, say) are at the same time deep ruts that bog the outfit down when violent competitive weather sets in.

What are we left with? A mess! To get on successfully with any complex job, you must feel in control, be mindlessly upbeat, master your discipline—and provide consistent “excellence” every day. But you must at the same time freely accept the fact that you’re out of control; that the more certain you are you’ve got it right, the more precarious your position; and that the only people who can help you out of your narrow bindings are aggressively optimistic colleagues with the gumption to follow a course running crosswise to your cherished way of doing business.

As the honcho, then, to keep others going you must lie through your teeth about the degree to which they are in control. To keep yourself going, you must be dead honest about the degree to which you are winging it. Maybe this answers why, in the end, we pay the big cheese a lot more than others: She or he needs that dough to pay a psychiatrist, if nothing else.

(C) 1990 TPG Communications.

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