THE BLOG
06/01/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Can Tom Peters Help Us Find Excellence In An America That Needs To Re-Set Its Thinking?

Do Our Leaders Know What Needs Doing?

Speaking of those managers who (while meaning to do well) destroy their corporations by following disastrous strategies, management pioneer W. Edwards Deming would sum up this paradox by saying "How could they know?"

Dr. Deming was referring to management's ignorance... it's lack of understanding... of what make a corporation sustainable over the long-term. What they needed to know but didn't he called the System of Profound Knowledge. You can read more about it here.

I'm raising this issue because I don't see much evidence that those proposing ways to fix what isn't working about America understand what really needs to be done. My concern is that these "best efforts" -- while well intentioned -- will come no closer to solving America's problems than the efforts of the managers of now out-of-business corporations came to solving their problems.

And my concern extends to the biggest "fix what's broken" manager America has: President Barack Obama, who made a rather schizophrenic speech yesterday, one which both he and the press called the Offshore Drilling Speech but which could have been called something else.

I'll get to that speech -- and what that alternative name for it could have been -- in the second part of this essay. But first I want to mention two men -- and an event -- that just might help get America on track for making the kinds of changes Dr. Deming knew did work... including changes in America's energy policies.

The first man is Tom Peters. And the event is the re-Set Business Forum, taking place on April 20th here in NYC.

I am making this judgment call, because I am part way through the most extreme schedule of conference attending I have ever undertaken. This is my research effort to see what the "best thinking" for fixing America being offered right now is. And -- while the re-Set Business Forum is still several weeks away -- I can already say it has the potential to top anything I've gone to so far or probably will go to. That's, in part, because the organizers recently arranged for me to conduct a phone interview with Tom Peters. But it's also because another of the Forum's speakers is the former CEO of The Walt Disney Company, Michael Eisner.

Tom Peters, Master At Searching For Excellence

If you don't recognize Tom Peter's name, think about the word "excellence" as it applies to business products and services. Tom is largely responsible for creating the "excellence in business is possible" mantra, starting with the 1982 publication of "In Search of Excellence" (co-written with Robert Waterman when they were both working for McKinsey).

Thanks to this book and related PBS specials, the "search for excellence" in every product American corporations made (and, eventually, every service American corporations delivered) received an almost religious boost. Coming on the heels of the decade when the quality of American products was running a poor second to that of the products coming from Japan, the passion Tom Peters had for excellence was sorely needed. He became a leader in the organizational performance improvement industry.

On stage, Tom is like a great football coach, urging people to throw themselves into the process of improving what they do body, mind and soul, no matter how big the challenge. Book titles like "Thriving on Chaos," "Liberation Management," and "The Pursuit of WOW!" reinforced Tom's nothing can stop you philosophy. And he has maintained that level of passion -- combined with a deep knowledge of organizational and personal development principles originated by people such as Dr. Deming -- through the release of his latest book "The Little Big Things: 163 Ways To Pursue Excellence" and on his blog.

I looked forward to speaking with Tom, because -- if America's progressive community is going to pull both our "Main Street" business community and all of American society out of the crisis we currently face -- it needs both the passion and the "break the rules" approach Tom has preached since 1982.

Talking with Tom only reinforced my belief that he is an American icon in the world of implementing fundamental, systemic change. He has the historical knowledge and perspective to guide people on which principles work and which don't. And he knows the power of letting people experiment (with mistakes being opportunities to learn and improve), as Lockheed famously did with its Skunk Works advanced aircraft design group. He also knows the transformational effect a corporation can have on a community, such as Wal-Mart turning its headquarters city (Bentonville, in Northwest Arkansas) into an international city unlike anything that would exist there otherwise.

Tom is not under any illusion that corporations will choose to save the world... at least not as long as they are as profit-driven as they are today. But that's where Michael Eisner's participation in re-Set Business comes into play.

To Michael Eisner, Content Is King

Michael has a new book coming out called Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed and is quoted as believing content is what counts most to customers.

Well, all of America needs to learn the rule breaking, systems thinking-based, excellence producing way of thinking that Tom Peters champions. Were Michael and Tom to form an educational partnership, content designed to bring the "excellence mindset" to all Americans could result. And once the American people get better at the choices they make, corporate America will follow... and so will America's politicians.

Keying off of Tom's love of history (and Michael's history at Disney), here's the little known model they could use to inspire their partnership: The Walt Disney - Wernher von Braun effort of 1955 that taught the American people that space travel was now technologically possible, that the dream of traveling through space was no longer a fantasy.

Disney and Von Braun Pictures, Images and Photos

Just to be clear, I'm sure there are many other possibilities that could come out of the re-Set Business Forum, including those generated by the other main speakers (Seth Godin, Anna Bernasek, and Gary Vaynerchuk). This is just my favorite. For the reason why, we have to return to President Barack Obama's schizophrenic speech (and the related reporting of it).

President Obama's Offshore Drilling Speech

Please read these extended excerpts from what, again, everyone is calling President Obama's Offshore Drilling speech of March 31st...

"This is not a decision that I've made lightly. It's one that Ken and I -- as well as Carol Browner, my energy advisor, and others in my administration -- looked at closely for more than a year. But the bottom line is this: Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth and produce jobs, and keep our businesses competitive, we are going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy.... We'll protect areas that are vital to tourism, the environment, and our national security. And we'll be guided not by political ideology, but by scientific evidence.... Around the world, countries are seeking an edge in the global marketplace by investing in new ways of producing and saving energy. From China to Germany, these nations recognize that the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the country that leads the global economy.... Our military leaders recognize the security imperative of increasing the use of alternative fuels, decreasing energy use, reducing our reliance on imported oil, making ourselves more energy-efficient... That's why the Defense Department has invested $2.7 billion this year alone to improve energy efficiency... So moving towards clean energy is about our security. It's also about our economy. And it's about the future of our planet. And what I hope is, is the policies that we've laid out -- from hybrid fleets to offshore drilling, from nuclear energy to wind energy -- underscores the seriousness with which my administration takes this challenge. It's a challenge that requires us to break out of the old ways of thinking, to think and act anew. And it requires each of us, regardless of whether we're in the private sector or the public sector, whether we're in the military or in the civilian side of government, to think about how could we be doing things better, how could we be doing things smarter... And thanks, again, to all of you who are serving in our Armed Services. You are making an enormous contribution, and this is just one example of the leadership that you're showing."

I have highlighted various phrases in the excerpts above to make a point.

What has widely been reported as the Offshore Drilling speech (and was labeled that by the Obama Administration) actually contained a lot of language regarding energy conservation (by the US military and by foreign countries) and what people with my training sometimes refer to as "what Einstein knew"...

"The specific problems we face cannot be solved using the same thinking that was used to create those problems in the first place."

How The Speech Was Reported

While President Obama made all these remarks related to energy conservation, global competitiveness and "breaking out of old thinking", that's not what got reported. Not even the PBS Newshour (which devoted almost 20 minutes to the speech) made energy conservation a focus of its reporting.

In his PBS Newshour interview, Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, only spoke in terms of a "comprehensive energy plan" that would provide "energy security" and "balance conservation and development". But by "conservation" he was referring to environmental protection (as best as I could tell). Only Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) - speaking against President Obama's announced plans - specifically said "We have to have alternative fuels and use less energy." But his focus on energy conservation received no further attention during the report.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't think President Obama thought he was making an energy conservation speech. And Secretary Salazar's interview would seem to confirm that the Obama Administration did not see this as an energy conservation speech either. In fact, by only mentioning energy saving in America with regard to activities by the US military, I thought President Obama was leaving out the rest of America intentionally.

Why? I don't know. But the opportunity for him to say "We - all of America, no just the military - will reduce our overall energy demands so we don't need to produce more energy from any energy source by adopting the following strategies..." was so clearly present, the fact that he did not say so is unmistakable. I will see if I can find out if he did so intentionally or not. But if he didn't mention energy conservation for all of America because he doesn't think it's important... doesn't think it can produce significant savings... then he needs to be introduced to Amory Lovins and William McDonough fast!

Doing More With Less

And that's the macro, cultural challenge I want to leave you thinking about. A country that is truly focused on "excellence" is one that recognizes that - thanks to scientific advancements - we can now "do more with less".

I know this message is already out there regarding the electric light bulbs we are all now starting to use. But those light bulbs barely scratch the surface of the "do more with less" cultural paradigm shift that's possible.

But to take full advantage of the ability to "to think about how could we be doing things better, how could we be doing things smarter" and then to implement those smarter ways of doing things, a massive educational effort is needed. Thinking in these entrepreneurial ways does not come naturally for most people, especially Systems Thinking-based entrepreneurial thinking, the thining that enables one to see - and implement - the largest socio-economic improvements of them all!

Based on yesterday's speech, I'm beginning to suspect that President Obama isn't able to think in these terms either. He needs this type of education too. But that's okay. Someone had to explain to John F. Kennedy that we now knew how to go to the Moon. Whenever he learned this truth, it was from an outside expert. It's not as if he was already a rocket scientist himself.

This is where a Tom Peters -- Michael Eisner educational partnership could come into play, or some other, equally powerful educational initiative. Hmm... I wonder if George Clooney has any interest in teaching people to see how we can "do more with less"? I know he's interested in journalism. And public education and journalism have a lot in common.