The Book that Tempts Me to Quit Coaching

Illustration of arrows, all pointing right, but otherwise random in size and colorAs an experiment, make yourself read through the next paragraph without responding in your head. Just absorb it.

Imagine a working world where line managers have 50 to 70 direct reports, made manageable because the teams are self-directing and include all functions needed to complete the work. Team members handle their own quality control, maintenance, timekeeping, housekeeping, safety, recruiting, layoff decisions, problem-solving, and budgeting, and rotate through the team leader role. They know everything upper managers do (within legal limits). “Permanent” employees really are permanent—that is, there are no layoffs of regular employees regardless of market conditions. Large companies have only four management layers including the CEO. Executive offices, if they exist at all, are bare-bones. Most of a manager’s job is sideways, using networks to support their teams, not “managing up” or down. Policy manuals are replaced by short value lists actively used in daily decision-making. Line workers are sent out to visit customers, and plant managers do stints in customer warehouses, to better understand the customer experience. Workers constantly experiment with doing things better, without managers pushing (or interfering). Failure is encouraged, even rewarded, because that leads to innovation. There is little in the way of formal planning. Products are introduced at a rapid pace to meet niche needs, but not before the product reaches top quality and the infrastructure and training needed to support it are complete. The myth of a trade-off between quality and cost has vanished—executives know high quality pays for itself. Workplaces, including assembly lines, bathrooms, and break rooms, are clean and well-maintained.

If you know me, you may think this is just a rehash of the stuff I’ve been slinging for 25 years, and you’d be right. Regardless, you may think it reflects the unrealistic “Agile purist” perspective that won’t work in the “real world.”

Cover of the bookActually, it summarizes Thriving in Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution, by famous management guru Tom Peters. Co-author of the best-selling In Search of Excellence, he was one of the major names in consulting when it was written in 1987, 14 years before the Agile Manifesto. In a barely contained rage at the way corporations were/are managed, Peters lists 45 prescriptions for dealing with modern change-lashed businesses—which is all businesses, he says. Every prescription comes with multiple examples where it had already been successful. Among the names he drops are 3M, Nucor Steel, Chaparral Steel, Nordstrom, and General Motors.

The book makes me want to give up on management coaching. If someone like him made so little impact on the way most managers manage, why am I still trying?

He does not use the capital-A “Agile” word, of course, but the prescriptions match the Agile Manifesto principles perfectly. Summarizing the prescriptions, he says the successful organization of the future—meaning the 1990s—will be the one:

  • “listening intently to its customers and adjusting rapidly”
  • making “more starts on new things, in every function, by every person… to adapt as fast as the ever-faster-changing environment requires”
  • “with high involvement, minimal hierarchy, and increased rewards based upon new performance parameters (quality, responsiveness)”
  • that addresses, “First, ‘how do you induce people to love change as much as they’ve hated it in the past?’ And then, ‘how do you lead/guide/control what looks like anarchy by normal standards?’”
  • measuring “the ‘right stuff’ (quality, flexibility, innovation)… Share information, heretofore considered confidential, with everyone in order to engender fast action on that line”

Ignore me, if you wish. Ignore Agile consultants. Ignore any management book published in the past 35 years. But read Thriving in Chaos and do it, all 45 prescriptions, all at once, as Peters recommended. You will achieve everything I and many others have been pressing you to pursue, and your bosses and stress levels will thank you for it.

Source: Peters, Thomas J., Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution, 1st ed (New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1987).


Tell the world: