When Excellence Isn’t Enough

What seems like an eon ago, Tom Peters catapulted himself onto the national stage by co-authoring In Search of Excellence. [...]

September 1 2001 by Joe Queenan


What seems like an eon ago, Tom Peters catapulted himself onto the national stage by co-authoring In Search of Excellence. Largely a paean to IBM, which at the time was the most powerful company on earth, this highly readable book was unimaginably successful, getting quoted, imitated, and praised everywhere by everybody as soon as it appeared.

Of course, IBM turned out to be not such an excellent company after all. Even as Peters and Robert H. Waterman were compiling their tome, Big Blue was showing signs of growing fat and smug. It misjudged the impact of PCs on the industry, failed to establish strategic relationships with gestating titans, developed a haughtiness toward its customers, and basically screwed up on all fronts.

Though IBM’s melt-down, from which it has now recovered, did little damage to the protean Peters’ reputation, it did render use of the term “excellence” problematic, in that the concept instantly conjured up jarring memories of Big Blue’s near-implosion. Not since Montezuma and the Aztecs went into the tank against Cortez and his piddling retinue of sassy conquistadors had a seemingly impregnable empire fallen so far so fast.

I mention all this because bookstores everywhere are now purveying a best-selling new title called The Myth of Excellence. The brainchild of Fred Crawford, a strategist at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, and Ryan Mathews, a “futurist,” the book carries the subtitle, “Why Great Companies Never Try to Be the Best at Everything.” The authors contend that by trying to excel at too many things, great companies drift away from their knitting. Rather than endlessly diversifying, they should focus on the concept of “consumer relevancy”-or anticipating the public’s needs and then filling them. But only filling the needs they’re good at filling.

Whether great companies should always avoid having their fingers in too many pies may still be up for debate. But our concern here is over how the success of The Myth of Excellence will affect the publishing industry. Previous blockbusters like The One-Minute Manager immediately spawned a host of imitations; a publishing season rarely passes without the appearance of some blockheaded tip sheet delineating how the wisdom of Attila the Hun, Napoleon Bonaparte, Ghengis Khan, or the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton can be used to boost earnings at Kalamazoo Gas & Electric. If The Myth of Excellence turns out to be a national best-seller, shelves may soon be overflowing with titles such as these:

The Myth of Competence. In this riveting oral history, former employees of Intel and Microsoft explain why great companies should never try to be good at more than one thing at a time, because they attract the ire of the Justice Department or the Federal Trade Commission. To avoid contretemps, great companies should deliberately set up inept subsidiaries that can’t do anything right. This will generate “consumer empathy,” meaning that ordinary people will be more likely to buy products from a firm that messes up occasionally, because it makes them seem more human-and more like consumers.

The Idiot’s Guide to Excellence. Excellence, like France, is terribly difficult to understand. To help the troubled, beleaguered, or capsizing corporation get a feel for excellence, this book chronicles the history of excellence, the mythology of excellence, and even lists 10 ways to pretend to be excellent when you are actually incompetent.

A Passion for Mediocrity. Let’s face it: Most companies succeed by doing a small number of things reasonably well, but nothing great. The average company is a lot like the average third child: mildly gifted, but no Einstein. For the first time ever, mediocre CEOs, slightly-above-average CFOs, and so-so boards of directors go on record and share the nebulous secrets that enabled them to reach the middle of the pack and stay there.

Other titles we can expect to see range from The Myth of Earnings to Leadership Secrets of Jimmy Carter. And if excellence is truly an overblown myth, we shouldn’t be surprised to see 10 Things They Don’t Teach You at Webvan and If You Want to Swim with the Sharks, Stop Being Such a Big Blue Whale. My fall reading list is complete.

Joe Queenan is a regular columnist for CE and author of Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation (Henry Holt & Co., 2001).