Abandon everything and screw around vigorously is the advice from guru of gurus Tom Peters according to FTdynamo in the third of a series of columns written for HR Zone from the new management education portal.
“We don’t need another hero”, sang Tina Turner in one of her 1980s anthems. Managers, it seems, are sometimes a little less discerning than the formidable Ms Turner. A few days ago your FTdynamo correspondent was lucky enough to spend a day at Tom Peters’ latest London seminar – “Experience Tom!”
From all over the country they came, in the teeth of bitter winds and heavy rain, overcoming whatever delay and confusion the rail network could put in their way. The tired, huddled masses of Britain’s managerial elite fought their way to town, like so many pilgrims on their way to Lourdes.
Nearly 300 delegates - paying up to pounds 800 a head - convened for the 9 o’clock start. By their job-titles you shall know them: competence development managers mingled with corporate planning chiefs and directors of strategy and innovation in anticipation of the day’s events. One distinguished name-badge remained unclaimed, belonging to “Phil Murphy, Special Adviser, The Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street”. Perhaps after all No.10 decided it had no need of this kind of inspirational guidance.
The large seminar room was filled with the usual equipment for these events – video cameras, big screens, long rows of tables and chairs. Our guide and master, now 58 years old, established his informal style at once. Delighted to find a Tom Peters junky in the front row, he declares: “You here again? One of us must be doing something wrong! Jesus, what’s the problem here?!”
Peters continues by explaining at once just what the problem is here. “The old game is over,” Peters says. “These are flaky, strange and totally weird times.” He quotes the authors (Schneider and Means) of a book called Metacapitalism: “The period 2000-2002 will bring the single greatest change in worldwide economic and business conditions since we came down from the trees”.
The clear implication is, if the game has changed so much, we had better be in the market for some bold and unconventional advice. And who better to deliver it than our own favourite guru?
What does he tell us next? “We are in a brawl with no rules.” Right. But what we had come to find out was, well, how do you do it? How do you cope in these times of giddying change, managing people and providing a lead for them at the same time? What strategies can we adopt, how should we behave?
“If you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, try whatever comes to mind,” Tom says. “I know that this is antithetical to most corporate cultures. What I am saying is: S.A.V. – Screw Around Vigorously!”
This provokes laughter. “I am deadly serious – this is culturally significant. You have got to be prepared to make an ass out of yourself.” It is quite a convenient argument: it’s year zero, everything has changed, it’s chaos out there, who are you going to believe?
Peters urges us to experiment, to take risks, to be prepared to fail. He cites Silicon Valley – “the highest business failure rate in the US”. He says that “fast, furious failures” lie on the route to success. He even quotes Churchill to a room full of Brits: “The secret of success is to go from failure to failure with great enthusiasm”. Peters is unequivocal: “If you look back on the past 12 months and can’t see failure, you’ve basically pissed away the year.”
We should seek out diversity – “Never hire anyone without an aberration in their background”.
The internet, social change, the end of hierarchy, the triumph of youth (and, Peters predicts, of women): everything has changed. And we must never stop selling ourselves if we want to get well rewarded ("The brand called YOU!"). “I really think it’s a privilege to be here when we are reinventing everything,” he says. “I may be a crank, but these are cranky times.”
We are hit by slide after slide, there is nodding all around as the quotes rain down. Michelangelo gets the best response: “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it”. Furious nodding after this. The last word goes to racing driver Mario Andretti: “If things seem under control you’re just not going fast enough.”
And that was that – 5.20pm – hometime. There was a drink upstairs for those with the energy or the need.
At the end of this rollercoaster day, what had we learned? We had learned that life was chaotic, confusing. We had learned that crazy times call for crazy behaviour, that we need to hire and work with Fellow Freaks, that we should be screwing around vigorously. We had learned that we had to be distinct, or extinct. The rest – putting all this into practice - was up to us.
Tired, but happy, delegates made their way outside into the cold December evening, and embarked on the immediate challenge of trying to get home. It was still raining, quite hard. But that won’t put off most of these satisfied customers from coming back again next time.
FTdynamo features writing and research from leading business schools and management consultancies with expert insight and analysis fromF Tdynamo. A free trial of its services is available at http://www.ftdynamo.com