Navigator Insights

Do we take our organisations too seriously? Companies as Carnivals: vintage Tom Peters

I revisited Liberation Management by Tom Peters this week, and was immediately struck by the thought that we have become all too serious, perhaps even precious about our mental models of what organisations should be.

Is this extract from 1992 dated? Is it so different now?

Stories and metaphors are great ways to get a message across. So here is a metaphor from Tom Peters – vintage stuff – fun and vibrant! And probably before it’s time!! Or maybe a time to which we need return?

Read what Peters has to say:

Add up fickle and fashion, the need for bonkers “organisations,” lots of tries and the matchless power of markets, and what do you have? Among other things, a clarion call for a new imagery.

In short, today’s organisational images stink. Not just those that derive from the military (“Kick ass and take names”) and “pyramids” (heavy, steep, immobile), but even the new “network,” “spiderweb,” “Calder mobile.” These modern notions are a mighty step forward, but they still miss the core idea of tomorrow’s surviving corporation: dynamism.

How about company-as-carnival? Consider these attributes of carnivals:
• Parts and wholes. “The State Fair’s next week.” “The circus is coming to town.” An image forms of the day with the kids at the Big Apple Circus last August, or of a trip to Disneyland. That overall image (the whole) is central to our “purchase decision,” yet we largely experience parts – a ride, a concert, a horse show, the booth where you hurl baseballs at wooden milk bottles to win the tacky Kewpie doll.
• The booth. As carnival organiser, you must think booth. The booth is the pearl. Excellence is the booth. (Or not.) A booth requires a champion, an architect, a contractor – and all-important front-line people who staff it for low pay, or as volunteers. Just as one spunky flight attendant can change the entire character of a flight, an energetic person in the booth makes all the difference.
• The “underpark.” Carnivals are about excitement and festivity. But we’ll think twice about coming back if the portable toilets are dirty (or scarce), or if the parking is far away and overpriced. The “underpark” at Disney is the well-oiled, no-nonsense, unheralded, unseen mechanism that permits the surface frenzy to proceed without a glitch.
• Microeconomy. A carnival is the ultimate marketplace. Fickle/”cruel” customers make hundreds of choices each hour: to stop at this booth or event, to skip that one. Carnival chiefs track booth/event attendance as carefully as retailers now track the hour-to-hour sales of each item off the shelf. They engage in a constant process of creation and destruction: removing a booth or act that can’t draw a crowd, refreshing an old favourite, pursuing exciting acts and new ideas.
• Same/different. The carnival boss, like the corporate boss, must address a prickly issue: Customers want “their” carnival the same, and they want it different. They want those clean toilets and their favourite rides/booths from last year. But they won’t keep coming back unless they are regularly surprised by new offerings.
• A moving target. The excitement and frustration of creating/managing/maintaining a carnival is that it won’t stay put. Carnivals have a completely different character from one day to the next. Or one hour to the next – due to weather, different crowds in the afternoon (mostly kids) and evening (mostly grown-ups), etc. Moreover, a carnival’s personality changes when it moves from city to city and, of course, from year to year.
• Low overhead, multi-entrepreneurial. A bare-bones staff of four (a chief, an accountant, a computer ace, an administrative specialist), working out of a dingy, 200-square-foot, low-rent space, may oversee a travelling carnival with 100 booths, 30 rides, 20 special events (which change from town to town), and an annual attendance in the millions. The carnival is the ultimate in “networked” or subcontracted events: Tents, toilets, and acts/booths are the work of entrepreneurs. Yet it all must add up, quirky day after quirky day, to a coherent whole.
• The customer creates his or her own carnival (I call it “customerizing”.) The carnival is a set of opportunities, a canvas on which the customer paints his or her own customised experience. If there are 5,000 customers tonight, they are painting 5,000 substantially different pictures.
• Dynamism. Say “carnival” and you think energy, surprise, buzz, fun. The mark of the carnival – and what makes it most different from a day at most offices – is its dynamism. Dynamism is its signature, the reason we go back. To create and maintain a carnival is never to get any inch away from dynamic imagery. As chief, you must feel the dynamics in your fingertips, be guided by them in every decision.
• Economics is fun! Real economics, that is, not the standard classroom variety. Real economics is about entrepreneurs, births and deaths of products and companies, oddball reasons that a product/service takes off – now, every, or never. The essence of real economics is dynamics, though we teach economics as a static discipline – hence, its “dismal science” moniker.

Today’s global economic dance is no Strauss waltz. It’s break dancing accompanied by street rap. The effective firm is much more like Carnival in Rio than a pyramid along the Nile. The practical point for the firm’s leaders: Constantly using dynamic imagery, thinking of yourself as running a carnival, and stomping out all forms of static thinking and imagery will help point you toward the right structure and strategy for these woozy times.

Thanks Tom. I wonder what today’s readers think?

Source: Tom Peters (1992) Liberation Management: Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties. (Mine is a well thumbed paperback version from 1996; copies can still be found through Amazon.)

Image courtesy of Nathan Greenwood /