Spring 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 1 // Tools of the Trade // 1TOT1

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Thriving on Chaos


Arlen Etling
State Specialist 4-H/Assistant Professor
Agricultural and Extension Education
The Pennsylvania State University-University Park

Thriving on Chaos. Tom Peters. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1987. 561 pp. $19.95 hardcover. $10.95 paperback.

Peters proposes 45 prescriptions for managers in a world turned upside down. Although written primarily for business, this "handbook for a management revolution" applies directly to the management of Cooperative Extension programs.

Those who enjoyed In Search of Excellence and A Passion for Excellence, co-authored by Peters, will find the same topic addressed with the same direct and engaging style. However, according to the author, conditions have changed. The world of the two previous books no longer exists. "Predictability is a thing of the past." An accelerating rate of innovation has produced a chaotic new world requiring a revolution in management if organizations are to survive.

"You can't do it all at once, but you must," Peters observes. Extension workers can empathize. So what are some answers?

Peters advocates the elimination of bureaucratic rules and humiliating conditions, the support of fast failures, an obsession with listening, and the decentralization of authority and strategic planning. He advises managers to defer to the front line people, delegate whenever possible, manage by example, provide incentive pay for everyone, and evaluate everyone on his or her love of change.

The theme of this book is "...we must simply learn to love change as much as we have hated it in the past." Otherwise, the fast-changing competitive scene will leave us behind.

Some readers will have trouble with this premise. Others may have trouble translating the numerous business references (sales, markets, customers) into Extension language (communication, potential audiences, clients). Not all of the prescriptions can be implemented easily (making incentive pay 25% to 50% of base pay). Peters' advice to launch a revolution, to be an internationalist, will have negative connotations to many traditionalists. Not all of his ideas, however, are revolutionary.

The last chapter advocates "total integrity" in all dealings with people inside the organization and out. Other chapters emphasize the need for conservative goals, top quality and superior services, and such mundane activities as training, evaluation, and recognition.

This book is valuable not only for its stimulating advice. Its format makes it one of the most accessible books on management. The 45 prescriptions are broken into five sections:

  1. Creating total customer responsiveness.
  2. Pursuing fast-paced innovation.
  3. Achieving flexibility by empowering people.
  4. Learning to love change - a new view of leadership at all levels.
  5. Building systems for a world turned upside down.

Within each section are chapters, one for each prescription. Each chapter includes an overview, an explanation of the prescription, examples, application to the public sector, and specific suggestions for action. Effective use of headings, underlining, and bold face facilitate skimming and rapid review.

The inside front and back covers each list the 45 prescriptions for easy reference. This device is particularly appropriate since the prescriptions are connected. Not only are the prescriptions in each section closely related, but each section is designed to support the other four.

Conclusion: don't wait! Find a copy of this reference NOW. It will entertain and stimulate. Then it can be used to help Extension managers at all levels to deal proactively with chaos - to take the chaos as given and learn to thrive on it.