Sometimes It Pays to Keep Your Ears Plugged

Tom Peters

“Talent never asks, ‘Will they like it?”‘ declared talk show host Larry King. “Talent pleases itself. That’s the difference between talent and the ordinary.”

Ever read a more self-serving statement? That was my first take. But then I realized King has a point, especially in today’s marketplace, bulging with look-alike products.

A movie is a box-office smash. Next come the sequels. Then all the major studios try to copy the star flick’s formula. Some successes ensue, but not many and not for long. So, too, in the world of consumer electronics, autos and financial services—who can forget the days of bank windows cluttered with ever broader arrays of toasters and microwave ovens?

Iconoclastic talent, to use King’s term, is invariably disruptive and disrespectful—CNN’s Ted Turner, FedEx’s Fred Smith, Microsoft’s Bill Gates. And most would-be destroyers (of the status quo) fail. But the handful whose zany notions punch our hot buttons are responsible for almost all important advances in commerce, science, and the arts.

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, “Strong Sales Focus Keeps Your Eye on the Ball,” consultant Jack Falvey claimed IBM had stumbled by ignoring its customers. Exactly wrong! IBM was primarily derailed by sales-minded leaders who paid slavish attention to yesterday’s customers, while the market took a 90-degree turn.

To give Falvey his due, most companies ought to pay lots more attention to their customers. Still, such sales and service obsessions can trap you in the long run.

There is apparent middle ground. Wise high-tech firms focus on “lead users,” pioneering customers whose kinky needs today may become tomorrow’s norm. Likewise, savvy packaged-food makers figure out Mr. and Ms. Average’s tastes of tomorrow by checking out what trendy restaurants are hawking today.

Such approaches, which extend far beyond customer surveys and focus groups, have merit. But they don’t go far enough.

In Accidental Empires, commentator Robert X. Cringely reckoned the giant computer industry’s progress rests on the backs of 25 or so true visionaries. Similarly, Bill Gates claims that a handful of brilliant programmers are the cornerstone of Microsoft’s future.

While I believe such visionaries have inner ears tuned to the consumer, much as top stage actresses are tuned to their audiences, they are certainly not “listening to” or being “led by” their customers in the conventional sense of those terms. Commentator George Gilder calls entrepreneurship the “launching of surprises.” And product visionaries do just that: They zap us by tapping into our unanticipated desires for Post-its, running shoes with pumps, desktop publishing, etc.

Gary Withers, head of the British market-services firm Imagination, is in the surprise business as he sees it: always trying to top his last creative performance. He claims that aggressively recruiting high-performance weirdos, whether or not there’s a specific job opening, is essential. Withers figures if the person is as interesting as he thinks, she or he will eventually find something clever to do that will vault the growing firm to the next plateau.

What are the practical implications of all this? Should we stop listening to customers? Should we embrace the head cases, even when they disrupt day-to-day business and thumb their noses at the corporate culture? Should we pay millions for stellar talent and in the process hopelessly scramble current compensation schemes?

Yes and no. In a perfect world, we’d listen obsessively to our customers—and also seek out the wackos. We’d hire the disrupters, but not let them disrupt “too much.”

Trouble is, it’s not a perfect world. Nice as it sounds, it’s impossible to be mainly button-down and mainly zany at once. IBM has had a pronounced bias toward the button-down, which led to enormous success, then, inevitably, failure. Johnson & Johnson and 3M have a bias toward the zany (at least by the modest standards of giant firms): Consequently, they fail to fully exploit many market opportunities—but also seem to have created the basis for perpetual self-renewal. Every so often some nut hits a home run, even though his or her product may conflict with the firm’s current bread-and-butter lines.

As the times become more unhinged, vigorously pursuing quirky talent (that occasionally unhinges you) looks like sound strategy. No, don’t turn a deaf ear to customers. But do understand that your future lies with the ability to cherish the royal pains in the neck who are in synch only with their own muse, but who just may lead you to the promised land. And remember the downside of ignoring this painful advice: Our increasingly entrepreneurial society, from overnight-delivery services to upstart software makers, is serving up an ever richer fare of wild ideas, one of which just might put you out of business.

(C) 1993 TPG Communications.

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