Project Management Institute

Passion beats planning, limiting scope is stupid, women rule... Tom Peters riffs on the changing nature of projects and work

Gadfly, curmudgeon, champion of bold failures, prince of disorder, maestro of zest, professional loudmouth … and one-time author of a master's thesis on PERT, Peters is project management's biggest fan and most outrageous critic all rolled into one.

by Jeannette Cabanis

BY NOW, HALF THE WORLD probably thinks the word “guru” is part of Tom Peters' given name—ManagementGuruTomPeters—in the same way that I believed, as a first grader, that elemenohpee was one letter in the alphabet song. Striving to outdo one another, Fortune and the Economist have called him the Ur-Guru and the Uber-Guru. But here at PM Network we prefer to think of him as a very nice guy who gets passionate about ideas and likes to talk about them, even with journalists, even when he's on vacation at his New England farm.

Peters was outside cutting down dying sugar maple trees when I reached him. Now, a sugar maple is to a Vermont farmer what the R&D department is to a computer manufacturer: a source of products, the wellspring of sweet cash flow, a resource to be carefully managed. Yet when it's moribund and just blocking the sunlight, it's gotta go to make way for something new.


Hmmm. Perhaps farming has provided a fertile ground for Peters' imagination in his nearly 20-year quest to eliminate the deadwood from American business practices and thinking. From 1982's In Search of Excellence to his seventh and latest book The Circle of Innovation: You Can't Shrink Your Way to Greatness (Knopf, 1997), Peters has been making a name for himself—“branding” himself, to use his own analogy—as the world's most brilliant, original, inspiring, listened-to, iconoclastic, passionate, self-contradictory, never-boring business thinker. And one theme he has stressed with increasing volume is that projects are the way to organize work, a whetstone for the competitive edge. Projects, Peters argues, release innovation, unlock creativity, and allow workers to go with the flow in times of frenetic change. He might have said (but didn't—this is my line) that projects are the new sugar maples of our time—bursting with possibility, just waiting for the savvy person or organization to tap into their power.

You were quoted a couple years ago as saying, “The model of the organization that will be required to survive is one pulled together for a specific task and then disintegrated again. …We may be talking about organizations that don't actually employ anybody.” Is that fully projectized future a real possibility? And what forces do you think are driving us in that direction?

That's a big question—as [VISA founder] Dee Hock would say, “it's the world we're talking about here.” But I think that there are several primary reasons why we are seeing this trend.

First, it's the age of intellectual capital. Rich countries aren't going to make it by heavy lifting. We're gonna make it with headwork and headwork alone.

Secondly, and this started back 10 years ago or so with the reengineering stuff … essentially we're automating the white-collar factory. Automation was at first a blue-collar, manufacturing environment thing. Now we're wiring everything up, automating the drudgework … even the GM worker is now mostly working on problem-solving teams. When the drudgery is gone what we do for a living is projects.

Chapter Six of Circle of Innovation (“All Value Comes from the Professional Services”) urges readers (in bold 72-point type, with exclamation points) to use the chapter as a Professional Services Firm Conversion Kit (Version 1.0). Central to the implementation of PSF 1.0: “Projects! Projects!! Projects!!!” Says Peters: “I am trying to turn you into a … Raving Project Fanatic.”

Here's a taste of the contents of his “Project Conversion Kit.”

Projects are the nuggets … the atoms … the basic particles. (Of PSF 1.0. Of life … in the new economy.) Time and again I'm asked, “How do we b-e-g-i-n?” My reply: T-H-I-N-K P-R-O-J-E-C-T. Projects (“projectization”) is like breathing to me and professional service firm folks in general. And, I've found, it's like Greek to many/most others. Hence … in response to popular demand … my complement to PSF 1.0 … the Project Creation/Conversion Kit … or PC 1.0.

  1. Begin with what you are doing … right now. IS IT A P-R-O-J-E-C-T? How do you know? PROJECTS ARE DEFINED IN TERMS OF SPECIFIC/TIME-BOUND OUTCOMES. What will constitute a good result? When? (Write it down … NOW.) A bad result? And when? (Write it down … NOW.) A WOW! (memorable) result? And when? (Write it down … NOW.) Projects are “chunks” … “doables” … THINGS WITH FINITE TIME HORIZONS THAT WILL RESULT IN MEASURABLE END PRODUCTS.
  2. Projects are about milestones. About finite benchmarks. About tests … (VERY) RAPID/(VERY) PRACTICAL TESTS. So … the most important project questions … are about … NEXT MILESTONES. When is the next milestone? And the next? And the next? The next 5 to 10? Likewise: When is the first road test? The next road test? With insiders? With outsiders? The “next test” answer had better be … WITHIN THE NEXT 10 WORKING DAYS. (No matter how complex the project … something can be partially piloted in the next few/10-or-fewer days.)
  3. Effective projects are about … EFFECTIVE CLIENT INVOLVEMENT. Thence, these questions … WHICH MUST BE ANSWERED:When was the last time you talked to the client? (The answer had damn well better be “yesterday”/“today.” Constant contact is a must.) Likewise: How much time did you/have you spent … WITH THE CLIENT … scoping out the project. And: Do you continue to hone the definition of the project … DAILY … with the client?
  4. While clients are important, so are weird/wacky/creative/interesting outside inputs. Thence: What interesting (kinky!) outsiders have you worked with on the project? An answer of “fewer than three or four” is … TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE! You are as good as the interesting/kinky/weird/fascinating/unexpected/counter-intuitive inputs to your project.

Very first step: Take whatever you are working on … right now … and begin today to shape it into a scintillating project … using the criteria above.

That's why in Circle of Innovation I say that the model for the future is the professional services firm. From the two-person architectural firm to monster firms like EDS, professional services firms all organize in project teams that change shape with regularity. It's a creativity-based world, a talent-based world. That logic is absolutely unstoppable.

We've got a long way to go to get from here to there, though, haven't we?

You're right, it takes a lot to dynamite the attitudes. But it's already going on. We've watched Microsoft eclipse IBM … and, what is it, something like 70 percent of the Fortune 500 have dropped off the list over the last several years. Wal-Mart has caused other retail businesses to do business in a dramatically different way because of the way they approach things. Then there are jerks like [“Chainsaw” Al] Dunlap around and I hate his guts but that's one way the destruction of the outmoded is happening. But the dynamiting of corporations is going on not always by nasties like Dunlap; it also happens when MCI gets together with WorldCom and they both learn a new way of doing business.

Those seem to be two conflicting trends: projectizing and gigantic mergers such as we've seen recently in the banking industry. Aren't such mergers the last howl of the dinosaurs?

Most of those mergers are happening in boring places. See, the banks' problem is that banks are irrelevant. Buildings in which people do financial transactions are on their way out. Many commentators are noting that these megamergers are happening in businesses that entrepreneurs wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole.

The other piece of it is that it may be a merger but the post-merger company will be organized as a project organization, as MCI has been all along. The fundamental way that work gets done will be based on projects. Banking is necessary; banks are not. Travel is necessary; travel agents sitting in offices are not. Cars are necessary; car dealerships are not.

You're saying that technology—the Internet—is fundamentally changing the way consumers relate to businesses.

Right. All of this means that the one-person contractors can be totally independent and yet be part of a global network: Sitting in our spare bedrooms, you and I could launch a global business. …[And] nobody knows if you are short or tall, black or white, disabled or Michael Jordan. This really puts the final nail in that particular coffin. It all becomes talent and value-based … there are some very powerful untitled 23-year-olds out there, wielding an influence in these networked, projectized organizations. Age doesn't count, gender doesn't count, position in the company doesn't count: contribution to the team is what counts.

Of course, there are some enormous project teams that are very bureaucratic … but on the average, up-to-100-person team, there's no issue of carrying deadwood.

In a way all this stuff is doubling back on the past. We used to live in a world where everyone was in craft and marketing, from the vegetable seller to the weaver to the miller.

Welcome to the past.

On that note—futurist Jennifer Jones believes that when we all go home to work as telecommuting virtual project team members, we'll renew our connection with the earth, with our kids and with our communities. What do you think?

I desperately wanna believe it. But it's not the first time that we've said that utopia was around the corner, you know. General Sarnoff of RCA was saying in 1920 that with the advent of the radio we will all be talking to one another around the world and it will be the end of war. … That was 12 years before Hitler. We've said that about all these modern communications media. … It's true that when you get into project work you have the opportunity for lots more community—but you also have less time for it. My experience with independent contractors is they work like fools, they're workaholics. But it's true, the potential is there.

“I know [the classic project management techniques] are important, and I also know that they're hopelessly limited … the magic of the great engineering projects was created by insane people with ridiculous dreams building bridges to places nobody wanted to go.”

[We] are working harder than ever before, and the people who are really killing themselves with overwork are the people who are the highest paid, which is a switch. The only people with leisure these days are French and German automobile workers. If they can pull it off, good for them. It certainly looked like they could, until the specter of Asia rose up on the scene. But we were all living in a cocoon … Americans and Europeans going their charming, merry way while the rest of the world starved to death. … The wonderful news is we're liberating billions of people from abject poverty. The bad news is that Danes and French won't be able to take eight weeks of vacation anymore.

In Circle of Innovation, you call on passion as an organizing force and challenge management to unearth the passion in the average person. You also exhort the reader to “turn everything into a project.” How do those two ideas fit together?

The good news about projects is the bad news about projects, depending on how you look at it—from the individual's point of view or from the corporate structure's. The wonderful thing about working on deadlines is, everyone helps out when the crunch comes. And suddenly Mary or Mark, the shy one, turns out to have this fabulous skill at pepping people up or has a long-hidden graphic arts skill. … She's been working on PhotoShop at home for months and suddenly it's 2 a.m. and she says to her boss, “Get outta the way, I can do this faster than you can.”

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In a standard corporate world this wouldn't work because we'd toss her out on her ear because she doesn't know her place in the hierarchy. But the truth is that if somebody's got a skill they are going to apply it eventually, either within or without the corporate structure. I think that's why we've seen this shocking spurt of women-owned businesses … they bump up against the glass ceiling and say, “the hell with it, I never wanted to run a pulp factory anyway,” and start their own firms. Ironically enough, the glass ceiling has almost turned out to be a good-news story for women. They hit it and realize, climbing this hierarchy is not what I want to do with the rest of my life. Men are unlucky in a way that they don't have this same experience. They can waste a lot more time before they get it.

You spend a whole chapter in Circle of Innovation singing the praises of women as entrepreneurs and consumers, which I found very cool.

This is the nicest thing about the 1990s. When we went through the first stage of the feminist era, the idea was that equality of worth meant that women and men had to be the same. At McKinsey & Co., the first women to get promoted were the ones that knew more NFL stories than the guys! But now we're learning to honor the fact that women bring a different set of managerial skills, different kinds of communication skills. Books like [Deborah Tannen's] You Just Don't Understand! point this out. It really is like we come from two different planets. That natural instinct to communicate is hardwired into the genes. Men like pecking order, women like webs and networks … which gives them an edge in these times. … the [World Wide] Web plays directly into the hands of women, for the reasons we talked about earlier.

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One piece of advice in your latest book is “Run like mad … then change direction.” Is there an inherent conflict between the flexibility of project work and the ordinary project manager's dogged insistence on defining scope and sticking to it?

One of my old bosses at McKinsey said a really great thing once. He said, “When we started off on this project we were confused. Now that we're halfway through we are as confused as ever but about much more important questions.”

That's life!

The question is, what will you remember when you're old? Will you remember the times you stuck to scope, met requirements, and finished on time or will you remember the project that goes all over the map, where halfway through you throw it all out the window and start over from a totally different place with something new going on and everyone is inspired and turns out fabulous work?

Of course, I realize that, at the end of the day, the contractor has to make money to cover the payroll … still, it's a horrible constraint to put on creativity, to only be able to do what you said you'd do, instead of all the great ideas that come up along the way.

Anything can be taken too far … it's not that there's anything wrong with the traditional project management techniques. Let's face it, PERT and Gantt charts came along at a time when we were trying to do pretty big things with absolutely no tools, and they definitely were useful and had their place. But let the conventional tools take over and the process becomes the goal.

Another chapter theme in your book is “obsess on design.” It seems to me that the multidisciplinary team that includes everyone from designer to customer support has the best shot at creating products and services that stand out. Is this another way that project management has an edge in the new economy?

Yes … but. The one issue I've got relative to this conversation is that [project management is] a double-edged sword. It represents both an incredible opportunity and a downside. See, the thing that bugs me most in PM literature is that 75 percent of it focuses on details and schedule. That's important, but what gets lost in the shuffle is the artistic, high-impact, emotional side of it. You don't pull a serious project off unless you are in love with it … creating modern capitalism is best understood as an activity of creativity, of human adventure propelled by enthusiasm … not an exercise in conforming to requirements and schedule. There's a wide gap between these two. I would love to see the PM literature focus less on technical stuff and more on what makes a project that you can be proud of.

You know, I am well trained in the hard side of projects. Deep in my past there's a master's degree in construction engineering and a thesis on PERT techniques. It's not that I don't understand it—and I'm not a Luddite—I know it's important and I also know that it's hopelessly limited. The magic of the great engineering projects was created by insane people with ridiculous dreams building bridges to places nobody wanted to go.

Take Bill Gates—you can like him or hate him, and I do both—he's a dreamer. He's got a passionate vision of what the world should look like.

What you're saying is an expanded version of the old saying, “a fool with a tool is still a fool.”

Right. Project management software is amazing. But on any but the most complex projects, it runs a poor second to things like communication. It's just like using a spreadsheet program: it can make you look smart when sometimes you're really dumb. Project management software can make you look organized when you really don't know your left foot from your right.

There's a fabulous quote from either William or Henry James—I can't remember which—about how he judged an artist's work. He said he asked himself not just, Is it good? Is it competent? but Was it worth doing?

That's the key: Was it worth doing? And will you remember it six months from now?

“A BRAND CALLED YOU,” an article that Peters wrote for Fast Company magazine (Sept./Oct. 1997) urged readers to view their careers as an entrepreneurial experience and to seek out projects as a way of standing out from the crowd. In Circle of Innovation, he completes the equation by urging companies to use projects as a way to bring out the entrepreneur and artist in every single employee. From either perspective, individual or organizational, this puts projects at the center of a new way of thinking about business—a way of thinking that Peters' millions of readers are lapping up from his best-selling books. Having a spokesman like that in your corner can only help the discipline of project management take root and flourish in every corner of society.

Thanks, Tom. It never hurts to have a guru sitting out back under your sugar maple tree. ■

Jeannette Cabanis ( is the “brand name” of PMI Publishing's special projects editor. She interviewed Tom Peters by telephone in July 1998.

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network • September 1998



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