Purposefully Stumbling About in Pursuit of Serendipity

Tom Peters

Seminar participant: "Is it true, Tom, that you really don't believe in plans?"

Me: "Uh ... (pause) yeah."

Seminar participant: "And you don't believe in goals either?"

Me: "Hmmm ... (pause) ... uh ... (long pause) ... yeah."

Funny thing about it, I was dead serious!

Getting things done. The foremost business issue. Getting things done fast. The foremost business issue for the '90s. The problem: The way that exceptional performers get things done fast is antithetical to conventional wisdom.

* The Economist magazine recently summarized a study on rapid decision making in madcap industries. (Stanford professor Kathleen Eisenhardt and Virginia professor Jay Bourgeois examined computer companies, but almost all industries would qualify as madcap today.) Effective, fast decision makers broke all the "rules"—inundating themselves with up-to-date information from all manner of sources, often oddball; formulating numerous options that they considered all at once; purposefully inducing numerous conflicting views to surface and clash; then relying upon intuition ("feel") to quickly sort it all out.

On the other hand, less effective, slow decision makers constructed formal systems for data acquisition; undertook massive analyses; relied on strategic planning; reviewed options one at a time.

* Michael Dixon, a long-time observer of successful entrepreneurs, engineers, and scientists, wrote in the Financial Times that "every one" of his subjects "denied planning out the work intellectually before tackling the practical tasks." Instead, the "decisive thinking was somehow embedded in the doing." And, once
again, they thrived by "relying fundamentally on intuition." ("I do it by feel," was a common observation.) All of this, Dixon adds, flies in the face of the plan-then-do approach, "which dates back 2,450 years to Plato."

* Paul MacCready, inventor of the prize-winning, feather-weight Gossamer Condor aircraft, may be a prime illustration of Dixon's point. "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing badly," he told an interviewer from Insight magazine. "If you can make it crudely, you can make it fast and it doesn't cost much. ... You can test it easily ... fix it crudely." Overall, he insists that such an approach maximizes the speed of learning.

* Deidre Carmody of the International Herald Tribune looked behind the exceptional batting average of the Hearst magazine group. The key: Instead of spending megabucks (and megatime) on market research about what sorts of magazines people might like, they cut to the chase, quickly putting a prototype on the market. If the genuine article sells, it's a go. If not, forget it and on to the next one.

* Sir John Harvey-Jones, the successful former chairman of British chemical giant ICI, argues for "speed rather than direction." If you're rolling, he says, then you can "veer and tack" as opportunities present themselves. If you're not moving, the best-laid plans will be of no value—the last 25-years' worth of strategic planning advice notwithstanding. (I've often joked that the many companies wedded to "scenario planning" carefully craft a dozen insightful pictures of tomorrow, but aren't capable of dealing with any of them. Only it's not funny.)

Suppose you're a chief who just can't seem to get the company (or division, sub-unit) turned on about information technology. Should you insist that the MIS boss create a master plan? Forget that for now. Try this: Get a PC. Frantically play with it (ably or not). Others will catch on. Or to spark excitement about quality, as another example, rather than hire a consultant, go to several quality courses and visit a handful of total-quality-management stars, taking different folks along each time. It boils down to visible immersion by the top dog on an issue that's a prime candidate for the apex of her or his agenda.

In short, get lots of people scurrying about and noodling over a pressing theme. The "objective" is to nudge forward the process of discovering goals along the way; to induce the largest number of people possible to quickly engage, to try something; to maximize the odds of serendipity.

"How do I know what I think until I see what I say" is a wise line attributed to Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner. It's changed my life. ("Do, then discover" is my version.)

Plans? Goals? Yes, I admit that I plan and set goals. After I've accomplished something, I declare it to have been my goal all along. It's a bald-faced lie, but no matter. One must keep up appearances; and in our society "having goals" and "making plans" are two of the most important pretenses. Unfortunately, they are dangerous pretenses—which repeatedly cause us to delay immersion in the real world of happy surprises, unhappy detours and unexpected byways. Meanwhile, the laurels keep going to those mildly purposeful stumblers who hang out, try stuff with reckless abandon—and occasionally bump into something big and bountiful, often barely related to the initial pursuit.

(C) 1990 TPG Communications.

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