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“There are countless ways of achieving greatness, but any road to achieving one’s maximum potential must be built on a bedrock of respect for the individual, a commitment to excellence, and a rejection of mediocrity.”

Buck Rodgers

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While I have always been a Tom Peters fan, especially his book Thriving on Chaos, I have always chafed at The Search for Excellence. Ok. Let me be more specific.

First.

In Search of Excellence was the first book I faced in my career that became a ‘formula’ for business people I worked with. Normally sane thoughtful independent thinking business people (mostly men) would pull out the book or point to it on some shelf and would say “we need to do this.” without question it became the first bible, of many business bibles to come, of what everyone needs to do to be excellent. And while I could debate some aspects of the book itself suffice it to say, its good, has some great ideas, but is not a bible.

Second.

Excellence. While excellence seems like an innocuous helpful objective, when placed into a maniacal environment (business pursuit of profits) excellence as an objective can become quite unhealthy. Its almost like perfection. Seeking excellence, and even perfection, can often make things better, but when they become objectives everyone gets measured in an “absence of” way <both are actually unattainable so when measured everyone will appear lacking>. When I was younger it was impossible trying to convince people excellence was a dubious objective at best. Later in my career as I got better at pointing out how good ideas can be misinterpreted and misused and become misguided objectives, I took this battle on more often (more on that later).

Then I found this snippet from a research paper (source lost):

In the eighties and nineties, N. Aubert and V. de Gaulejac (2007) argued, that the “ethics of excellence” in people management created the moral foundation of a system striving to control the totality of a person. In convincing employees that, by working for the firm, they were working for themselves, a complete blurring was made of professional and personal ambitions, and companies emerged as institutions capable of mediating individual destinies, supporting self-development, objects of true love, and in the end the only instrument able to fulfill the need for immortality of the self.

This work ethic creates particular interactions between people, interactions marked by the constant necessity to become visible. This quest for visibility takes the form of a new social game in which everyone is striving to capture the attention of others. In a sort of Goffmanian ‘parade’, self-branding and “newsing” oneself are ways to occupy the mental space of others and to stay on top of the competition. For businesses, being always present on personal communication channels, on webplatforms, etc., is a way to colonize the minds of their managers and to reduce their capacity to imagine another world.

The point here is that searching for excellence, when wielded as a management tool, became not only a power play, but as it became a standardized tool became an imagination/innovation diminisher. As with most things business does, they decided to make the search for excellence more a ‘paint by numbers’ concept rather than a malleable concept to be applied differently in different contexts. What the idea lost was what Mary Parker Follett called “the law of the situation.” In other words, the situation, the context, dictates the application of an idea or concept – even excellence.

Third.

Excellence aside, there are a number of good well intended ideas that have driven many a good business person off the beaten path to success. Copying and standardization are the worst things that can ever be done to a good concept. I have known that for many many years and have therefore been a pain in the ass for many many years.

I have been a pain in the ass for years.

In mid 90’s I published the highly unpopular “customer is not king/queen” arguing that all it would do is create an entire industry of businesses chasing customer’s whims & wants consistently undermining expectations. My agency was not delighted. But it did.

In 2005 I published the ‘inside/out manifesto’ arguing to achieve highest order of value is thru organization knowing who it is, unequivocally accepting that, with a product as an extension of who they are (successfully addressing a need) matched with customers who want that combo. Branding people were grumpy.

In 2000’s when my agency introduced The Big Idea brief I skewered it as encouraging people to believe the only ideas of value were Big and encouraging clients to only be happy with so-called Big ideas & it would create a false culture in which we made ‘small’ shit, even small shitty ideas, look Big. Agency not happy. But it did.

In 2008 I skewered The Experience Economy (although I think it is one of most important business books/ideas of this generation) arguing it would spawn an industry of vapid ideas & meaningless products wrapped in experiences all the while espousing premium value. It has.

In 2010 I began harpooning customer centric arguing it only leads to unmet promises, false expectations & hollow value (internally & externally) within hierarchies. It demands distributed organizational autonomy or it creates no value. It has & it still does.

In Search of Excellence, Good to Great, Tipping Point … pick a book with a viable idea and it has been abused. The biggest abuse resides in taking one’s eye off the single most important thing – successfully implementing any of these good ideas to the highest order of value are contingent upon a consistently good product consistently delivered. My biggest issue is how all this stuff diverts people from the hard work of developing a meaningful product & creating value in it.

Let me end by circling back to a thought that may have not been highlighted enough. The Law of the Situation (Mary Parker Follett). I love ideas from smart people, I love books and I love learning new things. But. Everything is contextual. Everything. The law of every idea is overruled by the law of the situation. No idea’s maximum value can survive the context without some adaptation. In other words. Each situation has its own order and own concept.

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Written by Bruce