In a nutshell: Thriving on Chaos – Gary Edwards

Posted: November 14, 2016 Filed under:

Too busy to read this?


…then read this:

At 523 pages this highly influential work by Tom Peters that has become almost a private sector leadership bible but it can be a long, tough read and so, in the first of the series here is condensed summary of the key stuff for busy school leaders.

Peters opens by setting the business world context as ever changing, unpredictable and faced with massive challenge from accelerating technological progress. He also cites an economic context of a large trade imbalance, sliding currency, a dismal productivity record and competitive threats from new parts of the globe. All sound very familiar? Interesting to note that this was written in 1987 – the old saying ‘what comes around, goes around’ was never truer.

The secret recipe to thriving on all this chaos for Peters rests in five bold ‘prescriptions’ for revolutionary leadership that hold key learning points for school leaders in the present day ‘chaos’ of education.

Firstly, Peters sets out a case for the organisation to strive for world class “superior” service twinned with “extraordinary responsiveness” to changing markets and customer needs. Leaving to one side the obvious difficulties with such service industry language the key messages for school leadership here are clear – set your standards and expectations bar very high and listen obsessively to pupils and parents.

Secondly the chaos survival game is all about fast-paced innovation. But for Peters the real trick here is in developing a ‘piloting culture’ for everything so it is actually about continual, small stuff change supported by big change projects that have been tried and tested before ‘go live’ across your school. Invest in “small starts” is what Peters advocates.

The essential learning here for schools seeking curriculum re-design, change in marking or homework policy are evident but unfortunately important messages that appear to have by-passed successive Education Secretaries!


Next, Peters turns to the people in the organisation and proclaims success through flexibility, empowering and involvement in everything. Invest time and energy in ensuring you recruit people with the right attitude and resilience to change and then train and retrain continually. In tough budget times the overwhelming drive to cut budgets like CPD are understandable but will not enable organisations to thrive in the long term and run totally against everything in the first set of prescriptions above.

Significantly, here he is an advocate of incentive pay but on a collective basis that emphasises the importance of teamwork – Academies with more flexibility on terms and conditions may be in interested to explore this idea further. Peters also suggests that a “job well done” can be recognised successfully with other types of awards. Peters then moves into the leadership arena with a manifesto to embrace and love change starting with a clear, inspirational vision, a personal philosophy of leading by example underpinned with listening, delegation and a sense of urgency but also a ruthless attack on bureaucratic rules and what he describes as “humiliating conditions”, for schools we can read that to mean excessive workload and inadequate resources.


But it is in the final section that we will dwell a little longer – here Peters sets out the necessary systems for a world turned upside down.

If there is just one line we should take from this book then it has to be this one:

Appraisal must be constant

For Peters performance appraisal and pay schemes need to be simple and to the point with review and feedback a continual experience so that “employees are fully aware of their progress through the year” And the more you think about that simple, bold statement, the more it makes sense. That is not to argue for 24/7 Ofsted style monitoring and in fact Peters resists the need for complex appraisal systems and forms but the value is in honest, regular supportive conversations aimed at continuous improvement and in fact formal appraisal should be only a small part of the motivation and recognition process.

Goals arising from appraisal should be straightforward and emphasising what you want to happen and should stretch employees beyond their comfort but not so much as seems impossible. In an intriguing analogy Peters suggests that if you put a 5 foot 10 inch person into 6 foot 3 inches of water, well after a fair bit of spluttering you will have a swimmer. Put that same person in 7 feet 4 inches of water and you could have a dead body on your hands

A useful analogy when thinking about expected pupil progress targets – the important factor here is in success criteria relevant to a whole school objective that is much more specific to the individual teacher/TA and the context including prior attainment.

Perhaps “Scrap Job Descriptions” is one of the more contentious headlines in this book. “At the stroke of a pen the boss lays all managerial worries to rest” with a wish list of tasks and an endless list of all the groups the employee is expected to “interface with” We can all probably think of JDs we have had that have ticked those boxes!

As an essential alternative to a far more flexible way of ensuring employees know what is expected of them in a fast changing world and Peters advocates coaching as the way towards “successful day to day risk taking”


Information and data are next up on the prescription.

For Peters, an individual who is given information cannot help but take responsibility. It has been enlightening in some of the appraisal training in schools and seeing the impact of support staff talking about the priorities in the school improvement plan and how their objectives should be shaped. A Site Manager discussing with TAs how his appraisal objectives support good teaching and learning. That is the kind of responsibility schools need and also give strong indication of the type of ‘bottom up’ approach to strategic thinking that is also at the heart of the prescriptions from Tom Peters.

And with that approach Peters also argues for budget decisions to be delegated as far down the organisation as possible, again all part of the responsibility agenda.


And then Peters signs off with a call for leaders to commit to total integrity and to demonstrate total honesty to lay down the essential cornerstone of trust for organisations to survive the upside down, chaotic world we inhabit.

His final word is about the essential paradox revealed here – the uncertainty of the world around us can only be handled successfully if the organisation can fall back on the certainty of relationships among people, groups and teams with the requisite unshakeable trust and integrity. Powerful stuff to end with.

Well it may seem a long and tough read at times and the context writing of the 1980’s may lead it to a slightly dated feel in places but most of the key messages for leadership that come through are all sound and stand the test of time and transition to the education sector.

Hopefully, this summary will have triggered some ideas for you and your leadership development either individually or collectively whether SLT or governing body but one final word and that is even if you don’t have the time to plough through all 523 pages of font size 9 then this book is very useful for the occasional pull out and delve.

And, of course if you would like the opportunity to discuss how The People Management Business can help your thinking here then give us a call or email.


Gary Edwards

November 2016

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