In 1982, Tom Peters and Robert H Waterman, Jr. published a revolutionary new business book.
In Search of Excellence became one of history’s best-selling books for the corporate crowd, examining the internal culture of 43 successful American companies.
But more than 30 years later, what is the book’s legacy? How does it hold up? Are its claims still valid?
In Search of Excellence’s central conceit is that each of the 43 companies exemplified a set of eight characteristics responsible for their success.
These characteristics revolved around nurturing and supporting employees and customers, while acting with efficiency, speed, expertise and willingness to learn.
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While it sold three million copies within its first few years, it also attracted its fair share of criticism.
The research methodology was considered sloppy; Peters’ studies involved flying around the US and talking to interesting people, with little in the way of planning besides that.
Further, the book failed to look at unsuccessful companies that may have embodied some or all of the eight characteristics, risking survivor bias.
In the ensuing years, it also became clear that some of the companies selected weren’t as successful as the authors suggested. Wang Laboratories, for example, did poorly in the 80s, and folded in 1992.
More recently, Walmart, long considered a safe investment, has been struggling in the face of online retail. (For a longer list of how those companies fared over the years, check out this article – it’s a near-even split between those that did worse and those that did better.)
At the same time, even if the methods and results of the study are questionable, the messages of the book are unquestionable.
The core ideas represent management strategies still in use today.
These days, being close to one’s customers, having a set of company values and encouraging employee individuality just sound like common sense. But it’s important to remember that Peters and Waterman were some of the first to suggest these approaches.
In Search of Excellence is, therefore, a key insight into the early days of management theory.
History might have been unkind to some elements of In Search of Excellence, and some criticism may have been deserved. But its status as one of the most popular business books ever remains indisputable.
So even though one should take some elements of the book with a healthy degree of scepticism, it’s still worth a look, after all these years.
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