Peters Gains Prominence as a Writer on Management Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With the publication of In Search of Excellence and subsequent books, Thomas J. Peters became known as a definitive commentator on modern management.

Summary of Event

Consultant and writer Thomas J. Peters gained prominence and fame in the 1980’s with the publication of several influential books that offered a progressive new take on American management. In each work, Peters emphasized the need for flexibility and innovation in a rapidly changing world. His ideas were conveyed through descriptive language and vivid illustrations that were readily understandable by a wide audience. Critics of his work found his message simplistic. Peters, however, saw that the message could not be stated simply enough. He suggested that the old models of successful businesses “dinosaurs” once considered to dominate various industries faced extinction because they had lost sight of their primary reason for existing: the customer. Management, theories of [kw]Peters Gains Prominence as a Writer on Management (1982) [kw]Writer on Management, Peters Gains Prominence as a (1982) [kw]Management, Peters Gains Prominence as a Writer on (1982) In Search of Excellence (Peters and Waterman) Management, theories of [g]North America;1982: Peters Gains Prominence as a Writer on Management[04760] [g]United States;1982: Peters Gains Prominence as a Writer on Management[04760] [c]Business and labor;1982: Peters Gains Prominence as a Writer on Management[04760] [c]Publishing and journalism;1982: Peters Gains Prominence as a Writer on Management[04760] Peters, Thomas J. Waterman, Robert H., Jr. Austin, Nancy

Peters’s rise to fame was propelled by his 1982 book In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies, cowritten by Robert H. Waterman, Jr. Unlike other modern management texts, In Search of Excellence rejected the notion of carefully plotted organizational charts and strategic decisions based on two-dimensional graphs. Instead, Peters and Waterman described excellent companies as passionate, focused, willing to take risks, and close to their customers. Taking note of the rigid bureaucracy that had gradually enveloped most American companies since the end of World War II, the authors presented these characteristics as a model for success in the 1980’s.

The basis for Peters’s observations was his work as a consultant for McKinsey & Company beginning in the early 1970’s. With a degree in industrial engineering from Cornell and an M.B.A. and Ph.D. from Stanford, Peters made a career out of following major American enterprises, including General Motors, IBM, and Xerox. In 1979, however, a visit to office products manufacturer Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3M) jolted his outlook. There, he witnessed an approach to management that scorned complicated hierarchies and endless memos in favor of immediate decision making. Peters and research partner Waterman, also a McKinsey consultant, subsequently named this approach a “bias for action.” In Search of Excellence maintained that this bias created a work environment fundamentally different from that of other Fortune 500 companies.

This pivotal experience at 3M led to the authors’ personal investigation of approximately seventy-five of the best-performing companies in the United States. They then drew conclusions about management style and characteristics for success from fourteen selected businesses that they termed “the excellent companies.” Industry leaders such as Procter & Gamble, McDonald’s, Delta Air Lines, Boeing, IBM, and 3M were included on their list. Although products and services varied, Peters and Waterman analyzed the particular organizational components that made these among what they considered to be “America’s best-run companies.” Their analysis resulted in a prescription of eight basic management principles that they observed to foster an atmosphere of excellence.

During the research for In Search of Excellence, Peters left McKinsey & Company and started a consulting practice of his own in Palo Alto, California. As the book’s popularity skyrocketed, however, he sensed a need to establish an organization specifically geared toward the dissemination of its message. He founded the Center for Management Excellence, Center for Management Excellence which sponsored intensive workshops for managers aimed at personal and organizational evaluation. In September, 1984, the center held its first five-day executive retreat, called a Skunk Camp. Referring to innovative activity within corporate America and honoring Lockheed’s fabled Skunk Works in its name, the camp brought together top managers from diverse businesses to share their experiences and discuss implementation of their ideas.

Peters’s second book, A Passion for Excellence: The Leadership Difference, Passion for Excellence, A (Peters and Austin) recounted the tales of these “skunks.” Released in 1985, it was cowritten by Nancy Austin, an author and publisher who also handled audio, video, and print products relating to Peters’s work. Similar in style to In Search of Excellence, the book suggested that a revolution was brewing among managers who had discovered that respect for people resulted in greater productivity by employees and greater satisfaction among customers. It also expanded the lessons of excellence outside the business world to include municipal government, education, and sports.

Peters and Austin introduced a three-part model for superior performance: care of customers, constant innovation, and enthusiastic employees. They maintained that these benchmarks could be achieved through a brand of visionary leadership they called MBWA, for “management by wandering around.” Management by wandering around Encouraging managers to get up from their desks, out of corner offices, and onto the production or sales floor, Peters and Austin emphasized the need to experience at first hand the problems that employees and customers encountered on a daily basis. Active listening and participation of managers were suggested as an organization’s best means of adapting to constant environmental change.

Peters’s third book was written from his Vermont farm. Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution Thriving on Chaos (Peters) (1987) contended that change was occurring more rapidly than ever before. As a result, corporations needed to be flexible, adaptive, and constantly evolving, a state Peters called “purposeful chaos.” Ironically, several of the businesses that Peters championed in his previous books had subsequently fallen victim to the uncertainty he described. For example, Peters acknowledged that the once-touted People Express airline had declared bankruptcy after two years; IBM’s dominant market position was threatened more than once, and its no-layoff policy had been abolished; and Atari realized too late that home computers had replaced video games on customers’ wish lists. In Thriving on Chaos, Peters labeled this phenomenon “the end of the era of sustainable excellence.”

Peters introduced a new recommendation for surviving in an unpredictable environment: lifelong learning, or the continuing education and training of the American workforce. In Thriving on Chaos, he presented numerous examples of businesses that implemented unique training programs with positive results. Peters saw the most effective policies as empowering employees at all levels to determine and invest in the training that would meet their immediate needs. In order for American business to remain viable in the 1990’s, Peters maintained, companies had to be described in terms of their workers’ skills. An organization’s continuing emphasis on skill building would help to ensure a workforce capable of surpassing the competition.

In addition to publishing these three best-selling books, Peters founded the Palo Alto-based Tom Peters Group. He published numerous pamphlets, wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column, appeared on television, created video- and audiotapes, and commanded thousands of dollars in fees for his speeches and seminars worldwide. The messages of excellence, passion, and purposeful chaos were absorbed by an astonishing number of people.


If sales records provide an indication of public interest in particular products, the impact of Peters’s work in the 1980’s was quantifiable. In Search of Excellence stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for three years, selling more than five million copies and undergoing fifteen translations. It was the best-selling management book in history, prompting numerous copycat authors to publish their views on the contemporary corporate condition. A Passion for Excellence stayed at or near the top of the best-seller list for forty weeks, while Thriving on Chaos remained there for sixty weeks. In Search of Excellence (Peters and Waterman)

Filled with colorful anecdotes, Peters’s books drew the attention of managers at all levels of business and in diverse fields, from the Fortune 500 executive that he originally targeted, to the struggling entrepreneur, the nonprofit administrator, and the management scholar. As BusinessWeek pointed out in 1984, In Search of Excellence struck a sensitive nerve in U.S. and even foreign managers. Peters and his coauthors had stumbled onto fertile ground.

There are several possible explanations for this widespread interest in a message that many people found essentially obvious. First, the deep recession that gripped the United States during the end of the 1970’s and beginning of the 1980’s prompted questions about the American work ethic, standard of living, and expectations for the future. Unemployment rates peaked just as In Search of Excellence appeared in the stores. Business news rose to the forefront of the country’s attention, along with a corresponding rise of the middle manager’s authority within the corporate hierarchy.

At the same time, it was becoming clear that Japan was matching and even surpassing the United States in terms of product design and development. American corporations began losing customers to their Japanese competitors, often because the foreign products were superior in quality or less costly. The threat of Japanese competition shook American security, forcing the realization that “business as usual” might no longer be effective. Companies that had prospered in the once-unlimited home market suddenly found themselves on a much larger playing field without a rule book.

Instead of looking toward Japan for models of success in this new environment, Peters provided praiseworthy examples of management at home. Although it was not Peters’s intent to be optimistic, his work had the effect of raising American self-confidence. In the midst of economic uncertainties and intense competition from the Pacific, many people recognized potential solutions in Peters’s ideas regarding organizational structure and managerial practice. His observations about the art of modern management were given serious consideration and exposure in a variety of venues and locales.

The immediate popularity of In Search of Excellence came as a surprise to its authors and publisher. After less than one month in stores, the book went through its eighth printing. Such success brought with it extensive coverage by the media, which dubbed Peters a “management guru” and compared his passionate writing and lecture style to an evangelist’s. Business journals and newspapers scrutinized the books, and popular magazines such as People, Glamour, and Working Woman published interviews, excerpts, and self-quizzes on leadership style.

The impact of Peters’s message went beyond the store shelves and newsstands. It affected the way many executives thought about their operations; in some cases, it spurred changes in corporate behavior. For example, Lockheed Aerospace initiated an executive training program called the Lockheed Way to Excellence. Burger King Burger King vowed to overtake McDonald’s McDonald’s restaurants[Macdonalds restaurants] as the fast-food leader Fast-food industry[Fast food industry] as a result of Peters and Waterman’s applause for “Big Mac management.” Weyerhaeuser, a forest-products company, was motivated by In Search of Excellence to survey customer needs and integrate responses into its planning.

In 1989, the manager of a rural Louisiana electric cooperative returned from a Peters seminar with a thirty-day action plan. As Peters advised, he took simple steps to improve the quality of customer service, including remodeling a reception area, examining complaint response time, and creating employee handbooks. These basic actions effectively improved the work environment, level of customer satisfaction, and employee productivity in this company.

A Ford auto plant experiment in the late 1980’s also revealed the shift in managerial controls that Peters frequently discussed. Ford Motor Company Automobiles;manufacture For the first time, Ford assembly-line workers were permitted to shut down the entire line at any time during production to make a quality adjustment. Although this practice was common in Japan, it was not typical of American businesses, in which mandatory quotas frequently dictated job performance. The Ford experiment not only increased the employees’ sense of ownership in the operation but also reduced the number of product defects, follow-ups, and union grievances.

Peters’s work in the 1980’s made the examination of modern business a mainstream activity. He brought this examination out of prestigious schools of business and into shopping malls and the Book-of-the-Month Club. Some observers maintained that the popularity of his message approached a cultural phenomenon. His buzzwords and catchy phrases remained on the lips of managers in boardrooms, banks, schools, and churches. In part as a result of Peters’s continuing emphasis on the practical application of management skills over theories, many American business schools began changing their curricula to include these key concepts.

Peters suggested that, for all the struggles of the 1980’s, American business still had not evolved enough. In a 1986 U.S. News & World Report article, Peters clearly defined the challenge: “It adds up to a world turned upside down. In virtually every area, our past strengths have become weaknesses. The surviving enterprises must learn an entire new way of doing business.”

In 1992, Peters’s massive Liberation Management: Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties Liberation Management (Peters) continued to sound this plea. Peters suggested that companies should applaud innovation and should also celebrate failures and mistakes as part of the learning process. Stressing people over technology, Peters urged the abandonment of huge enterprises in favor of highly focused, decentralized work units that regularly reward employees and encourage their continued growth and experimentation. Peters continued writing in subsequent years, but none of his more recent books attained the stature of In Search of Excellence. In Search of Excellence (Peters and Waterman) Management, theories of

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peters, Thomas J. “’Doubting Thomas’: Confessions of a Big-Company Man.” Inc. 11 (April, 1989): 82-92. Peters describes the experiences that led him to write his first three books. Addresses the changes and contradictions in his own thinking throughout the 1980’s. A good overview of his ideas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Liberation Management: Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. Emphasizes decentralization of large companies and uninhibited experimentation. Maintains that small, entrepreneurial units lend themselves to rapid adaptation in the marketplace better than do industry giants that are still bent on economies of scale and vertical integration. Solid, real-world advice, but 834 pages long.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Re-imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2003. Like his previous books, this work suggests innovative ways of overcoming outdated modes of business. Written in a fun, accessible style.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. The next step in the “Peters Principle”: Once you have mastered the basics and gotten close to the customer, then do something more to get a jump on the competition. The book offers forty-five “prescriptions” for survival in a tumultuous world and suggests that those who see chaos as a market advantage have the best chance of success.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Tom Peters’s True Confessions.” Fast Company 53 (December, 2001): 78. Twenty years after In Search of Excellence was first published, Peters humorously recounts his motivation for writing the book and offers interesting “confessions” and anecdotes surrounding that work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peters, Thomas J., and Nancy Austin. A Passion for Excellence: The Leadership Difference. New York: Random House, 1985. Sequel to In Search of Excellence. Provides anecdotes and case studies to illustrate “management by wandering around,” a commonsense leadership style promoting understanding of customer and employee needs. Some of the material is repetitious.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peters, Thomas J., and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies. 1982. Reprint. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Peters’s first book and the all-time management best seller. Uses engaging case studies to describe managerial excellence in modern businesses. Sometimes referred to as the “business bible” of the 1980’s.

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