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Book review: The Little Big Things

Book review: The Little Big Things
Bestselling business writer Tom Peters has been watching some small Kiwi businesses.

The Little Big Things

The Little Big Things

By Tom Peters (HarperCollins, 2010) $40 Buy@Fishpond

Tom Peters has one hell of a CV, but has no idea what he does for a living.

As a US Navy combat engineer from 1966–1970, he did two tours in Vietnam and one in the Pentagon. He was a White House drug-abuse advisor from 1973–74, and then worked at McKinsey & Company from 1974–81. He became a partner and co-founder of the now near-legendary Organizational Effectiveness business practice in 1979. In 1982, In Search of Excellence, the book he wrote with Robert Waterman, became an international bestseller, shifting three million copies in four years. The apparent simplicity of his ideas obviously makes them easy to translate. On the day we talk, the 67-year-old is busy preparing for another four-country two-week jaw tour.

His latest book is a pretty straight lift from years of blogging at TomPeters.com on what he calls the Two-Cent Candy Phenomenon. His thesis? That simple things, like leaving lollies by the till, are what really make the difference between a mediocre business and a great one.

This is obviously not normal business consultancy, so what is his job description these days?

"The straight answer is that I have no idea, never have," he says. "I'll give you a call when I figure it out. I think it is outrageous, because there's nothing clever about it. I've got a couple of engineering and business degrees, but you don't really need to get beyond the level of the third form to understand these ideas."

When not on the international speaker merry-go-round, he can sometimes be found at his holiday home in New Zealand's Golden Bay. But even there he never stops looking for the little details of good business that have become his stock in trade.

"The closest town is Takaka, and the top four or five professional services are well worth writing about," he says. "There are a lot of people doing great work. You have got to think that five or ten percent are doing pretty good work and one percent of businesses in any given town are really worth emulating and learning something from.

"When I talk to big businesses about customer service I tell them to make every one of their people a consultant for the next week and during that week keep their eyes open when they are getting their laundry done, going to a restaurant or getting the car fixed. Look for the little positive or negative acts of service that go on, bring those ideas back, and apply them to our bigger space."

His secret is that there is no secret: business best practice is hiding in plain sight. It just isn't all glam and whizz-bang, so too many of us overlook it. It's not the blue skies, big picture and visions beloved of old-school business consultants: it's detail and old-fashioned courtesy.

"Human decency, thoughtfulness and so on make up the number one profit-making strategy in the world. And if it doesn't make you a ton of profit, it at least allows you to look in the mirror every morning without throwing up."

Peters doesn't tell potential business leaders to read Sun Tzu's The Art of War and play squash, he tells them to buy a big bunch of flowers on the way to the office and place them on the receptionist's desk.

"One of the things that coaches tend to do in American football is script the first five or ten plays," he says. "Things are going to change and you are going to adjust, but as an offensive team you know the first four or five things you are going to try.

"Bosses ought to script their first four or five plays. Think about the three or four people whose desks you should stop by to ask them how things are going, to ask them what you can do for them. You think of it as the Queen arriving in Auckland. The boss, even if she is only 28 years old in an 11-person insurance office, she is the Queen, because people pay attention to bosses. So there's this great opportunity to set the tone."

In line with this, Peters decries how top business schools don't focus on the little things, and keep producing graduates who fail to see the blindingly obvious.

"There's a lot of good 'ordinary' stuff being taught in business schools that is useful for real people in real supervisory roles," he says. "But the big schools seem to fundamentally pay too little attention to the people issues. That's always a mistake. It starts with the people, ends with the people and it's the people in the middle."

His take on New Zealand, Ltd? "The notion that farm exports are still the numero uno in New Zealand, the notion that developed economies and high-wage economies will thrive based on hand work is pretty much out the window. The notion that we will survive based on education, adult learning, continuous learning—that's fabulous."