In Search of Stupidity: Over 20 Years of High-Tech Marketing Disasters
In 1982, Harper & Row published In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman. In Search of Excellence quickly became a seminal work in the category of business management books and made its authors millionaires. Although it’s no longer the literary obsession of freshly minted MBAs that it was back in the 1980s, the book’s distribution and influence has proven long-lasting and pervasive. After its introduction, the book stayed on best-seller lists for almost 4 years and sold over 3 million copies. A survey by WorldCat, an electronic catalog of materials from libraries in the United States and other countries, ranks In Search of Excellence as being on more library shelves than any other book in the world. With 3,971 libraries listing it as being in their collections, the book tops the list of 100 books held by libraries. It has held the number one position since 1989.
In Search of Excellence, when it first came out, applied soothing balm to the raw nerves of the American psyche and this helps account for its tremendous success. The 1970s had been a gloomy time for U.S. businesses. The Japanese had run American companies out of consumer electronics; Japanese cars lasted 100,000 miles, while American cars started breaking down at 20,000; and as the 1980s began, Japanese companies had just started making memory chips more cheaply than their American counterparts. The Japanese even announced they were starting a “Fifth Generation” project to build software that would make computers very very smart indeed, leaving the poor old United States with software systems that would be the technological equivalent of Studebakers. (The project was a complete bust, like all the others emanating from the artificial intelligence hype machine of the 1980s, and it never developed much more than software capable of storing some nice recipes for sushi.) Yes, the United States was doing OK in this new market for little machines called microcomputers, but the pundits universally agreed that eventually the Japanese were going to move into that industry as well and that would be it for the Americans. Maybe IBM would survive; after all, they did business like the Japanese anyway. For the ambitious young MBA, a start-up position in agribusiness, such as sheep herding, began to look like the fast track to the top.
In Search of Excellence helped buck everyone up. All the companies it profiled were American firms competing successfully in world markets. It seemed obvious that if you studied the organizations closely, learned the fundamental practices and techniques they used to achieve excellence, and then applied those practices and techniques to your business, it would become excellent too!
The basic thesis of In Search of Excellence isn’t complex and can be summed up succinctly: Excellent companies create corporate cultures in which success flourishes. (Yes, this is something of a tautology, but it’s a nice one and people always like reading it.) An excellent corporate culture is one that loves the customer, loves its employees, loves the company’s products, and loves loving the company....