Three Cheers for Aimless Ambling

Tom Peters

In a recent Detroit Free Press feature, “The Hazards of Business Fads,” American Management Association President Tom Horton takes a swipe at my favorite prescription: managing by wandering around. Or, the paper reports, “by stumbling around, as Horton says. It’s his nomination for most ridiculous recent management fad.” The article quotes Horton’s gripe: “‘The theory is that the captain needs to get away from the bridge and roam the ship. But somebody’s got to be steering the ship.’ Good managers, he points out, don’t wander aimlessly; their visits are planned and purposeful.”

Utter nonsense! Our businesses, large ones especially, are losing ground for two principal reasons: out-of-touch leaders and an inability to act fast in a fast-changing world. Here’s why.

1. Management enemy number one is information distortion, especially when it comes professionally packaged, accompanied by computer-generated, 16-color graphics. As a long-time consultant, I know almost every trick of the trade when it comes to distorting information behind crisp logic and clever schematics. The world today is a messy place. You, the manager, had better be as messy as the world. Information-processing scientists even have a term to describe this need—requisite variety. That is, the variety of your sources must match the complexity of the real problem, or you will be led to erroneous conclusions.

In the office, whether you are chief of a big organization or a small one (like me), you are shielded from the truth by a bewildering array of devices, prudent and malicious, all designed to “save” you from trivia and complexity so that your mind can be clear as you confront the “big picture” decisions. Instead, our minds are empty, and we make uninformed decisions.

2. The action and the truth are on the front line. Sad to say, Mr. Horton, the team plugging away in the distribution center on the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. graveyard shift knows more about the company’s quality and service problems than the bosses do, all dozen levels of them. But to disgorge that information, you must visit enough and chat up enough people at 3 a.m. to stitch together an accurate picture.

General George Patton understood all this. He had an intuitive feel for bottlenecks in the Army’s execution of his grand strategy. Recall the sometimes censored scene in Patton, the movie, in which the general shoots a peasant’s horse to clear a bridge and let the Army through. I don’t endorse shooting horses; I do endorse Patton’s restless roaming. Likewise, Patton’s British counterpart, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, occupied a mobile, near-the-front trailer, rather than his formal headquarters. He resided there with a tiny band of young officers who directly passed his orders to subordinate generals. Their second purpose was to collect undistorted feedback about the feel of the front, and the subordinate generals’ states of mind.

3. Ambling must be semi-aimless. Psychologists used to preach to guilty dads, “It doesn’t matter how much time you spend with your kids, it’s the quality of the time that counts.” Common sense, as well as subsequent studies, says that’s bunk. Most good things that happen with kids (or in any other setting) are inadvertent, a sideshow to the planned purpose of an activity. For instance, it’s said that Einstein discovered relativity while riding a train, absent-mindedly watching a parallel train pull ahead, leaving him with the sense of moving backwards—relatively. As Philosopher Vilfredo Pareto put it “Logic is useful for proof, but almost never for making discoveries.” That meticulously planned state visit by the chief of the 16- or 16,000-person firm will be contorted by subordinates to ensure that the hypotheses he already holds are confirmed.

4. There is not enough time to get it “right.” By the time you have collected enough evidence to be sure about anything today, three competitors have captured the market. In Kaisha: The Japanese Corporation, James Abegglen and George Stalk, Jr., described Japanese firms’ obsession with competitors. Oddly, they conclude that our problem is our obsession with planning. A leading Japanese firm lets no competitive move go unanswered, no matter how tiny. The authors say we are “dangerously naive.” We reason that the Japanese “‘are not using any technology or innovation we are not already aware of. … [O]ur challenge is to leap frog them.’ While [we carefully] consider the virtues of an appropriate response … the gap [engendered by Japan’s host of tiny changes] continues to widen.”

Mr. Horton’s former employer, IBM, is suffering from this malaise right now. Its highly articulated systems have kept too many unit commanders effectively isolated on the bridge, while skippers with wanderlust, such as President Ken Olsen of Digital Equipment, have tacked rapidly to several victories.

Above all, today, we must teach action. In a Harvard Business Review article, McKinsey & Company consultant Amar Bhide called “organizational hustle” an unparalleled competitive weapon. Our firms of all sizes must learn to hustle—grab a little bit of information, check it out some, and then, for heaven’s sake, do something!

Captain, get the heck off the bridge, travel by yourself, and don’t rest until you find out why one lonely consumer doesn’t like your car or steel joist; and find out why one lonely front-line employee thinks your latest participative management scheme is just so much hot air coming from the isolated bridge once again.

(c) 1987 TPG Communications

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