Peters's chaos principle: the gadfly stings

Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution, by Tom Peters. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $19.95. Here's an equation for people who read books about business management:

x/McDonald's=Peter Drucker's/filet mignon.

(Whose management advice is to McDonald's/as Peter Drucker's is to filet mignon?)

Tom Peters's.

Peters is co-author of ``In Search of Excellence'' and ``A Passion for Excellence.'' Those books chronicled the successes of companies that displayed theoretically progressive management approaches - like listening to their employees and dealing more responsively with customers. Strangely enough, a Business Week study a couple of years after Peters's first book appeared indicated that his companies were not going too strong.

What new ideas there are in ``Thriving on Chaos'' are strident. The tone suggests a hype, repackaged management-theory Big Mac, with plenty of sour pickles, fear, and urgency.

The book is subtitled ``Handbook for a Management Revolution.'' If it weren't for the reappearance of Peters's good old ideas, it might be subtitled ``Handbook for a Management Shock.'' As much as anything, the book serves to refuel a moneymaking machine known as ``The Tom Peters Group'' of talks, articles, newsletters, tapes, seminars - and devotees. To sell the performance this time around, the gadfly has put a new face on its bite or new bite on its face, and it comes in the form of a sting.

``There are no excellent companies,'' Peters snaps. You're only good if you respond, like Pavlov's dogs, to market conditions. Little is said about those institutions and businesses that are good because they do not react to the ever-changing market - that have a good product and know it's good and stick with it.

At times there's something dialectic about Peters's advice: Change for the sake of change; everything is fleeting; the only constant is change. Economic ``progress'' takes place only by an antithesis (not his terminology) confronting a thesis, which evolves into something different, a synthesis. If your ``thesis'' happens to be a really fine product or service, you may lose it all if you accept this philosophy.

He writes that ``excellent firms of tomorrow will cherish impermanence.'' ``Facing up to the need for revolution'' is one chapter heading. ``Learning to love change'' and ``Support fast failures'' are others.

Despite a claim to capitalize on the positive, this business-advice-cum-entertainment of a book tends in the direction of urgent, somewhat facile diagnoses of conditions. It does little new to recognize and build upon the strengths and health of the past.

The book offers 45 ``prescriptions,'' most to be administered in a climate of chaos and anarchy. ``Today, loving change, tumult, even chaos is a prerequisite for survival, let alone success,'' Peters writes.

Chaos and anarchy are not usually cures, but causes - as likely to aggravate and divide as to solve and succeed. Without radical redefining, ``chaos'' - in any form - is another word for hell, not for the road to success.

J. Denis Glover is on the Monitor staff.

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