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Tom Peters: Innovation the key

Management guru says adaptation is key to economic success

By Ian Grayson
For CNN

ON CNN INTERNATIONAL TV

"Forward Thinking" appears each week between 2330-0000 GMT Sunday.

(CNN) -- In the field of organizational and management theory, Tom Peters didn't just write the book -- he created an entire genre.

For more than 20 years, the thought-provoking author, speaker and consultant has been challenging accepted wisdom in the business community -- getting under the skin of those at the helm of industry.

Dubbed an "uber guru" by his peers, Peters asserts that the classic hierarchical company structure is flawed and is likely to become extinct.

Peters first captured the attention of global business leaders with his 1982 book, "In Search of Excellence." By examining the characteristics shared by successful companies, he created a guide for managers keen to drive their organizations to greater heights.

A series of subsequent books served to hone Peters' thinking and provided the launching pad for his successful consulting company. He now spends much of his time traveling the world, advising senior managers on the steps they need to take to ensure their company's long-term survival.

According to Peters, future economic success will spring from entrepreneurial individuals and small firms agile enough to seize new opportunities. Freed from the constraints of top-heavy management structures, they will generate the ideas and innovations needed to survive in an ultra-competitive world.

While many Western business leaders worry about the accelerating shift of economic power to rising forces such as China, Peters sees the change as an opportunity, urging companies to "race up the value chain" in order to prosper. Continuing to focus attention on mergers and cost cutting just won't get the job done any more.

"The only way we're going to survive is to innovate our way out of the box," he told a recent conference audience. "We're down to one idea, which is innovation."

Peters says 90 percent of all existing white-collar jobs will either disappear or be reconfigured "beyond recognition" within the next 10-15 years. "Who's going to take your job?" he asks. "Indians? Chinese? Microprocessors? Take your pick!"

When predicting what form successful companies will take in the future, Peters suggests the professional-services firm as a classic template. Whether it's a business consultancy, advertising agency or a real estate office, these firms will thrive by attracting the most talented people, focusing on client relationships and delivering top-quality service.

And, thanks to massive advances in computing and telecommunications, such groups no longer need to be under a single roof. Teams of independent sole traders will hook together for a project and disband once it's completed. It's this free flow of ideas and human capital that will underpin much of the economic growth of the next 50 years.

According to Peters, sitting at the very heart of this tumultuous change is the individual. Only by encouraging original thought and "nurturing the freaks" will companies have the skills and drive needed to grow.

He points out that history is made, not by normal people, but by the "freaks" who dare to think differently and stand out from the herd. The companies who encourage individual thinking and endeavor will be the ones that succeed.

For Peters, one of the worst crimes an individual can commit is to sit on the sidelines and watch. "You have to be involved to make a difference in the world," he says.

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