Chaos - just a new way of getting organized?

`CHAOS!' cried the first vice-president. ``That's what we need more of - chaos!'' The word reverberated around the conference room like the shout of ``Fire!'' in a crowded theater.

``Shhh!'' whispered the second vice-president, turning pale.

``Chaos? Not here!'' the third vice-president declared firmly. ```Black Monday' was nothing more than `a long-overdue correction.' That's our story, and we're sticking with it.''

``No, no,'' the chairman said. ``You don't understand. I asked our first vice-president to read and evaluate a new book on business management, called `Thriving on Chaos.'''

``How can you thrive on chaos? How can chaos ever be good?'' the third vice-president muttered. ``I don't get it.''

The third vice-president never got it. That was why he was third vice-president.

``I don't trust these books that promise to teach you How to Be Competitive,'' said the second vice-president. ``They always lose something in translation from the Japanese.''

``The author happens to be American,'' the chairman said, `` - fellow named Tom Peters.''

``Didn't he work for Chrysler?'' asked the third vice-president - as out of it as ever.

``Not that I know of,'' the first vice-president replied with the patient smile everybody reserved for the third vice-president. ``But Peters did write two earlier books, `In Search of Excellence' and `A Passion for Excellence' - best sellers both, I might add.''

``What's the chap changing the subject from excellence to chaos for?'' demanded the second vice-president. ``Doesn't sound like progress to me.''

``Maybe he's telling us that chaos is the proper breeding ground for excellence,'' the chairman suggested.

``You're very close, sir,'' said the first vice-president with perhaps a shade too much admiration - or so the other vice-presidents thought. ``If I read him correctly, Peters is saying that we've got to relax, improvise, take chances - be willing to fail as part of the process.''

``I have no problem with that,'' said the second vice-president - credited with initiating two disastrous programs in the past six months.

``Peters thinks small is very beautiful,'' the first vice-president continued. ``He wants to break down the corporation into lots of autonomous units, establishing their own work rules and keeping jobs as flexible as possible.''

``Flexible jobs - I like that,'' cried the third vice-president, whose duties were already so flexible that nobody knew what they were.

``If there must be structure, Peters wants it to be horizontal,'' the first vice-president added.

``That sounds harmless enough,'' the second vice-president said cautiously. ``But what does it mean?''

``Fewer memos. Fewer conferences. Getting things done rather than talking about getting things done,'' said the first vice-president.

There was a stunned silence.

``Uh-oh,'' said the second vice-president. ``What's he trying to do - get rid of middle management?''

``Well, yes,'' confessed the first vice-president.

``But that's us,'' the third vice-president wailed, and for once, everybody agreed with him.

``No memos? No conferences like this?'' the chairman asked himself thoughtfully. ``That would be chaos.''

The vice-presidents waited, their hearts in their mouths - their jobs on the line.

The chairman took a deep, statesmanlike breath. ``Gentlemen,'' he said, ``I think we're going back to excellence. Such a lovely word - it hangs in the air like a rainbow. Shall we schedule a meeting to discuss our five-year excellence-activation program? Same time tomorrow?''

``Excellent! - if you'll excuse the expression,'' said the second vice-president, and even the chairman laughed. It was such a comfort to know that chaos, old-style, was still alive and well in the conference room.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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