The good thing about long plane trips is the ability to catch up on books. One of the ones on my list was a book by Tom Peters, called Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution.

This isn’t a particularly new book, first published in 1987 and the edition I read published in 1989, however the content remains just as appropriate as it is today. The author describes the way that the world is changing – ever unpredictable, new emerging markets, constantly changing conditions. Sound familiar? Since then, I believe it has becomes even more rapid and even more chaotic, and so his advice is largely relevant today.

Thriving on Chaos

The book is written as a set of edicts for people to follow. It covers everything from focusing on the customer (sounds a bit like Design Thinking and Users as the heart of the process), ideas around innovation and very relevant to the items James and I talked about in our talk about “How successful companies innovate“, through to empowering people in the organisation, building capacity for change and organisational advice on structures that need to change to cope in this world.

What was strange reading this old book was how it felt very lean/Toyota Way inspired. A lot of the advice is told in stories that relate to manufacturing, and although the world is very different today, the focus on knowledge work, failing fast and much of his advice is still completely relevant to the work that we do today. Almost everything in the book today seems very relevant, with the only piece of advice that remains a bit dated being about incentivising and aligning people with money even though new research says otherwise.

Even as a simplification, it is worth reading the headers from the book:

Creating Total Customer Responsiveness

  • Specialise, create niches, differentiate
  • Provide top quality, as perceived by the customer
  • Provide superior services, emphasise the intangibles
  • Achieve extraordinary responsiveness
  • Be an internationalist
  • Create uniqueness
  • Becomes obsessed with listening
  • Turn manufacturing into a marketing weapon
  • Make sales and service forces into heroes
  • Launch a customer revolution

Pursing fast-paced innovation

  • Invest in application-oriented small starts
  • Pursue team product, service development
  • Encourage pilots of everything
  • Practice “Creative Swiping”
  • Make word-of-mouth marketing systematic
  • Support committed champions
  • “Model” innovation, practice purposeful impatience
  • Support fast failures
  • Set quantitative innovation goals
  • Create a corporate capacity for innovation

Achieving Flexibility by Empowering People

  • Involve everyone in everything
  • Use self-managing teams
  • Listen, celebrate, recognise
  • Spend time lavishly on recruiting
  • Train and retrain
  • Provide incentive pay for everyone
  • Provide an employment guarantee
  • Simply, reduce structure
  • Reconceive the middle manager’s role
  • Eliminate bureaucratic rules and humiliating conditions

Learning to love change: A new view of leadership at all levels

  • Master paradox
  • Develop an inspiring vision
  • Manage by example
  • Practice visible management
  • Pay attention! (More listening)
  • Defer to the front line
  • Delegate
  • Pursue “Horizontal” management by bashing bureaucracy
  • Evaluate everyone on his or her love of change
  • Create a sense of urgency

Building systems for a world turned upside down

  • Measure what is important
  • Revamp the chief control tools
  • Decentralise information, authority, and strategic planning
  • Set conservative goals
  • Demand Total Integrity