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The Engineer and The Gardener: the Central Tension in 21st Century Management

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“Warm hearts allied with cool heads seek a middle way between the extremes of abstract theory and personal impulse”                                         Stephen Toulmin, Return to Reason

In Masters of Management (2011) Adrian Wooldridge (Bagehot columnist for The Economist and frequent Drucker Forum participant) identified four defects in management theory:

  1. That it was constitutionally incapable of self-criticism
  2. Its terminology confuses rather than educates
  3. It rarely rises above common sense
  4. It is faddish and bedeviled by contradictions

After declaring management theory “guilty” on all charges in various degrees, he identified the root problem as an “intellectual confusion at the heart of management theory; it has become… a battleground between two radically opposed philosophies. Management theorists usually belong to one of two rival schools. Each of which is inspired by a different philosophy of nature; and management practice has oscillated wildly between these two positions.” He went on to identify the two schools as scientific managementon the one hand and humanistic managementon the other, concluding that, “This, in essence, is the debate between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ management.”

It’s Not a Bug, It’s a Feature

It’s time to recognize our fundamentally divided nature as the essence of our humanity and that it is the practical weaving together of irreconcilable opposites that is the very warp and woof of our existence as human beings. It is not a bug but a feature of our success as a species and our ability to grapple with uncertainty by cooperating in groups much larger than the extended family. Managers and leaders must integrate this diversity. That takes art, craft, a little science, powerful metaphors and compelling stories, lots of stories.

The Engineer and the Gardener

Over the last sixty years the focus of Anglo-American management has been on means rather than ends. Many regard management as applied economics. The stress on efficiency has been very successful, at least according to the metrics it values. This engineering-technical approach, however, tends to view organizations as machines and people as instruments. The spotlight on utility and stability has led to an inability to address identity, purpose, innovation and change, especially in large-scale organizations. To do that requires an organic, ecological-adaptive approach – the earth-caked hands and patient habits of a gardener.  Through this lens organizations are organisms and people are ends-in-themselves. The resulting tensions go with the job of being a manager and a leader.

Complicated and Complex Challenges

The engineering approach is not wrong. It works well in the natural sciences, but erratically in management. Complexity science tells us why. Project Apollo NASA’s program to put a man on the moon was a technically-complicated challenge. The cause-and-effect relationships were stable and understandable to engineers. On the other hand, raising children, starting new businesses or innovating in existing ones are complex challenges. The ‘components’ have minds of their own and causality has to be continually discovered and rediscovered. Complex challenges cannot be reduced to merely complicated ones, so managers are always grappling with an unknown compound of the two. When uncertainty rules ‘gardeners’ are needed.

The Individual and The Community

The engineering-technical approach to management emphasizes the role of the individual and neglects that of community, especially the role of the community in producing, not just individuals, but human beings. It privileges ‘I’ over ‘we’. There is much we can learn from the African concept of ubuntu, often translated as ‘I am because you are’. What makes us human is our connectedness with each other and the empathy that flows from that. The standard Zulu greeting is sawubona– “I see you.” The response is sikhona– “I am here.” Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. It follows then that management is always both a moral and a technical practice.

Masculine and Feminine

There is widening discussion in management about the meager representation of women at the top of business. It’s time to recognize the systemic roots of this issue in theAnglo-American management’s mono-logical mindset and heroic, ‘make-it-happen’ ethos that crowds out everything else. Engineering sounds hard, tough, masculine and predictable. Gardening has a very different feel. Gardeners care, they nurture, they tend. They realize that young enterprises and emergent strategies have to be cultivated and grown not designed and built.  They understand the ecology of the situation, discerning the possibilities in this organization, right here,right now. They have to select and plant, water and fertilize, train and prune – and  sometimes uproot and transplant. It’s a subtle, indirect approach, always embedded in complexity and calling on multiple perspectives to ‘help it happen’.

A Single Mind with Two Brains

After this litany of tensions and dilemmas the good news is that we humans have evolved to handle paradox. Our single mind consists of two brains, two ways of being in the world that are in creative tension with one another. One way is concerned with the familiar, the other with the novel, the one with what’s predictable, the other with what’s possible, the one with what is fixed, static, decontextualized and explicit, the other with the variable, dynamic, embedded and implicit. The mind is a loom that continually weaves a fabric of meaning, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

East and West

Gardeners and engineers, yin and yang; the Taoist polarities capture well the weaving dynamic of management. Evolution uses a dual model, with a creative dynamic between female and male, as its default for its key mission – the production, care and development of the next generation. Gender is not destiny, but both roles must be played. Why would it be any different for creating sustainable organizations and societies? As managers we need a dual-systems view; a ‘dialectic of polarity’ as Drucker called it, between the existential and the instrumental, complex and complicated. This will take a social movement, a community of practice and some gardeners who also know how to be engineers. And have the judgment to know when.

This article is one in a series related to the 10th Global Peter Drucker Forum, with the theme management. the human dimension, taking place on November 29 & 30, 2018 in Vienna, Austria #GPDF18

 

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The Ecology of a Social Movement: The Quakers and Social Reform – Public Talk RSA London December 7 2018

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The Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale

On Friday December 7 2018 I will be at the RSA’s Rawthmell’s Café 8 John Adam Street, London, speaking on the Ecology of a Social Movement, using the Quakers of the First Industrial Revolution as my example. They were an astonishing community of commercial and social entrepreneurs who had an influence out of all proportion to their small numbers. They featured in my book, Crisis & Renewal (1995/2002) and I have blogged about them before.

In this multi-media presentation I will outline an ecological model of change and use it to explore the Quakers experience, their origins in the turmoil of the English Civil War, their rise to commercial and social prominence in the 18thand early 19thCenturies and their subsequent decline.

The event will be held on The Steps, the mini amphitheatre that is part of the new Rawthmell’s Café at the RSA. I will look forward to seeing you there!

 

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Lead Like a Gardener! – Agile and Design Thinking Will Become Management Fads Unless We Expand Our Concept of Management

Master Gardeners Tilling the Soil

Master Gardeners Tilling the Soil

This blog is a shortened version of a full-length article Lead Like a Gardener that appeared in Medium earlier this week.

Management is notoriously faddish. Managers can reflect on a long line of management innovations that attracted huge attention, were widely adopted and then gradually dropped as management attention wandered to shinier tools.

Is Agile Different?

Management writer Steve Denning argued in a recent Forbes column that Agile is different from all the others. All of his claims have merit but I think that they are largely irrelevant to whether Agile becomes a fad or not. The determining factor is the mainstream Anglo-American management mindset. This dominant ‘Cartesian’ view of management is that it is a technical practice, like engineering, with the same relationship to economics that engineering has to physics. It appeals to an individualistic ‘CEO’ theory of mind. This is the folk theory that we have only one conscious mind and that the manager is a detached, knowing actor/agent in a knowable world, rationally calculating (predominantly) his options and issuing crisp, actionable instructions. Accordingly to this Cartesian view all management innovations are seen as instruments – tools and techniques – to be wielded by such rational actors.  This view is closely associated with scientific materialism, the philosophical belief in a universe of matter and that physical reality, accessed by the natural sciences, is all that exists.

The Rise and Fall of Business Process Reengineering

The rise and fall of Business Process Reengineering is the clearest illustration of the making and breaking of a management fad. First its very name implied that one was dealing with a mechanical, engineering process. The ‘reengineering’ tag was deliberately chosen because it was ‘hard, tough and masculine’ Secondly, a feature of BPR was its violent prose penned by the appropriately-surnamed Michael Hammer. This appealed to the two most common characteristics of American managers – aggression and impatience. Thirdly, BPR’s main advocates Michael Hammer and James Champy made it clear that knowledge of a particular business was unimportant for BPR to be a success: they were talking about “clean sheet” design. That was catnip for consultants.

By 1993 60% of Fortune 500 firms claimed they had either initiated BPR projects or had plans to do so. By 1994 a $50 billion consulting business had developed around it. By early 1995, however cracks were appearing. Reengineering projects were failing badly, often making situations worse. Reduced headcount had become the main corporate goal conducted under the banner of BPR. The three founders of the movement, James Champy, Michael Hammer and Thomas Davenport, all made public apologies, confessing that in their revolutionary fervour they had forgotten about people.

The Double Bind of Management Methodologies

The fate of BPR illustrates the double bind that the developers and peddlers of new approaches to management find themselves in. To ensure that a new approach has wide appeal they will be tempted to frame it as an efficiency tool, but if a methodology is used purely instrumentally it is unlikely to be effective. If, on the other hand, the creators emphasize the counter-cultural nature of the new approach it will be unlikely to achieve widespread use. One sees some proponents of both Agile and Design Thinking taking the first option, presenting them as linear, mechanical processes – an efficiency tool to do more work in less time, and a ‘roadmap’ for innovation.

Complicated and Complex Challenges: Engineering and Ecology

The Cartesian mindset isn’t wrong: it works well in the natural sciences. In management it’s limited in its applicability. It works when applied to predictable, machine-like systems, situations where the same inputs always produce the same outputs and cause-and-effect relationships between independent and dependent variables are stable.

The Cartesian mindset doesn’t work, however, when it is applied to complex systems where parameters are unstable, agents are interdependent and cause-and-effect is non-linear. Starting new business ventures is also like that. No venture is the same and what works in one situation may not work in another.  Complex systems don’t yield to engineering-technical methodologies; they require an ecological-adaptive approach. Instead of thinking like engineers, entrepreneurs have to act like gardeners. They realize that nascent enterprises and emergent strategies have to be cultivated and grown not designed and built.  They have to understand the ecology of the situation, what might thrive and what might die. They have to select and plant, water and fertilize, train and prune. At other times they may have to break out the chainsaw to clear away the deadwood, uproot and transplant, make a bonfire of the debris and plant anew. As managers they realize that no two situations are ever the same; history matters, contexts matter and stories matter.

Expanding Mindsets; Doing, Knowing and Being 

The Cartesian mindset is baked into Anglo-American management theory and practice. As a result it overused and misapplied.

How does one change one’s mindset? Of course the Cartesians have an answer – all it takes is a conscious choice, like an engineer selecting welded connections over riveted ones. But this ignores that fact that ‘mindset’ is a multi-layered concept. A mindset can be as shallow as the selection of an explicit model or as broad as a worldview and as deep as a philosophy of life.  At these deep levels a change in mindset demands a change in identity, an existential change in a way of being. Changes here take compelling experiences, not intellectual choices.

It Will Take a Social Movement Plus Much More

Expanding the Anglo-American management mindset will take a social movement plus much more. We are looking at a complete re-assessment of the theory and purpose of the corporation and its role as an organ of society. To make the situation even more difficult this reassessment of the role and purpose of the corporation will challenge the hegemony of the philosophy of scientific materialism and the scientific method as the only valid form of inquiry into the human condition. The universe may be made matter but we humans live in a world of significance, a world of ‘what matters’. Here history, context and narrative all matter. Once this is accepted the limits on the context-free, scientific method become clear and the importance of the liberal arts in general and the humanities in particular become recognized as valid forms of inquiry into the context-dependent human condition.

There Will Be Significant Opposition

As if all these requirements were not demanding enough, there will be significant opposition to this new, broader view of the human mind, the role and purpose of the corporation and the task of management. This opposition can be expected from both the management academy as well as mainstream management consultants, neither of whom have any interest in revising their view of management as an engineering and technical practice.

The only support for this model will come from management practitioners because it captures the reality of their experience, especially those in privately-owned companies and the not-for-profit sector. Managers in small and medium–sized companies can also be expected to be supporters. The management in large public companies may be more ambivalent. It is well established that successful organizations become more mechanical as they grow in size and exploit economies of scale. As such, the engineering-technical approach is more widely applicable to them than to any other class of business. The focus on quarterly reporting and short-term results argues against an ecological-adaptive approach that may take a long time to show results.

Leading Like a Gardener

The core to this challenge is the Anglo-American management mindset with its macho ‘make-it-happen’ management identity. Gardening has a much more feminine feel; gardeners care, they nurture, they tend.  They are cooperative rather than competitive. It’s a subtle and indirect approach always embedded in a systems view and calling on multiple perspectives to ‘help it happen’. Certainly there are activist moments when gardeners must train and prune, uproot and cut down but these activities are always contained within the larger view.

But changes in identity are possible. In Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (2015), , General Stanley McChrystal explains how the confrontation with Al Quaeda in Iraq (AQI) posed a complex challenge rather than one of the complicated situations that his task force had been designed to handle. Their hierarchical structure and formal communication and approval processes were totally unsuitable for this encounter with an elusive, resilient enemy, whose organizational network morphed continually. McChrystal realized that he had to change the task force’s culture and ways of working into those of fast, flexible network that could match AQI’s for agility and speed of decision-making. The result was something he called ‘shared consciousness’.

What McChrystal’s account makes clear, like those of others who have been through similar experiences, is that it takes a compelling experience to expand the engineering mindset into an ecological one. Only when a situation’s demands are so pressing, unambiguous and anxiety-inducing can deeply embedded habits, one’s identity, one’s way of being, be changed. Only then can individuals truly set aside self-interest and collaborate with their peers in common cause. Where such experiences come from is as varied as the situations in which people find themselves. Mass conversions of this kind typically take place in the aftermath of some great event or crisis. But that’s what it’s going to take if agile and design thinking and other management innovations are not to become management fads and we are to develop a more sustainable approach to management and learn to lead like gardeners.

This is the immense new task of management, both in theory and in practice.

 

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Management Needs to Return to Reason

balance-stones

Zen Stones

‘The arts of life…turn out to possess their own special methods and techniques…Bad judgement here consists not in failing to apply the methods of natural science, but, on the contrary, in over-applying them’.
Isaiah Berlin, Political Judgement

Ever since the European Enlightenment reason has been regarded as the hallmark of our humanity. The French philosophes argued that it was the power of abstract thought that separated us from animals. Only reason promised a certainty that could free us from the tyranny of tradition, dogmatic faith and arbitrary rule.

Reason and rationality

There was, however, not a single Enlightenment. While the French took Descartes as their model and focused on the supremacy of his rational method, the English and Scottish Enlightenments emphasized its limits. For the British the essence of human nature was a moral sense of right and wrong and a natural empathy for others. For them reason meant reasonableness, not rationality. These different perspectives have led to radically different understandings of change in social systems, exemplified by the clash between the conservative Edmund Burke and the radical Thomas Paine and their differing views on the French Revolution. Burke saw it as an unmitigated disaster, a destruction of community and tradition that heralded the age of ‘economists and calculators’. Paine, on the other hand, cheered it to the echo.

American politicians have never quite figured out which branch of the Enlightenment they belong to. Jefferson and Hamilton took opposite sides and, despite his conservative views, even Ronald Reagan was fond of quoting Paine’s aphorism that ‘We have it in our power to make the world over again’. The divisions continue to this day. Conservatives, like Burke, are aghast at the thought of intellectuals trying to design and build what can only be grown, while the followers of Paine espouse progressive agendas to make the world anew.

American management, in contrast with politics, has never been in much philosophical doubt. One can track the roots of this confidence back to the 19th century influence of French thinking in the United States Military Academy at West Point, the nursery of so many early management pioneers. When the business schools were reformed in the late 1950s, Anglo-American philosophy was in a tight, analytic orbit. Academics aspired to make management a science in the mould of economics. Scientific rationality was seen as the only true knowledge and the scientific method as the only valid form of inquiry. Thus management was deemed to be a technical practice involving the application of theory. Organizational change was viewed as a rational, top-down, outside-in process, a perspective that reached its peak in the re-engineering craze of the 1990s. Even today, to be told that one is ‘rational’ is taken as a compliment and deviations from scientific rationality are described as ‘flaws’ and ‘biases’.

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Cattle, Slaves and Automobiles: Driving Dangerously With Management Clichés

Cattle Drive

Texas Cattle Drive

Language is rooted in metaphor. In their popular book, Metaphors We Live By (1982) George Lakoff and Mark Johnson showed the pervasive role that our embodied experience plays in our understanding of how the world works, or might work. We excel at grasping how one abstract object or experience is like another, more concrete one. Thus happy is ‘up’ as in “I feel up”, while sad is ‘down’. Sometimes the meaning has to be determined by context. When I say, “It’s all downhill from here,” it means that things are going to either get worse or get easier. Whatever the case, this perspective suggests that our minds are primarily analogical rather than analytical and that we think in frames before we think in facts. It’s the frames that determine which facts matter and what they mean.

This use of metaphor is particularly important when it comes to understanding cause-and-effect in complex systems i.e. interactions where causality is non-linear. If one wants to understand anyone’s view of causality in an organization look at the metaphors they use. The dominant frame in Anglo-American management theory and practice is that of the engineer, the manager as a lone, detached observer looking at a complicated machine whose workings are understandable, at least in principle. Objectivity and scientific rationality, prediction and control are the order of the day and the role of the manager is that of an actor/agent in a knowable world, rationally calculating (predominantly) his options and issuing crisp, actionable instructions backed up by sanctions and incentives. The mind of the manager is idealized as factual and forensic, rather like that of the hyper-logical Mr. Spock in Star Trek. I will call this view the ‘Cartesian Framework’ in honour of the debt it owes the French rationalist philosopher René Descartes, but it could also be called ‘Newtonian’ for its dependence on classical physics.

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Management: a Noble Practice

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Management as a Noble Practice

The theme of the 2017 Global Drucker Forum to be held in Vienna later this year is “Growth & Inclusive Prosperity – The Secular Management Challenge”. Dictionary definitions of prosperity mention a condition of being successful or thriving, especially economic well-being – a desirable accompaniment of living. What’s the essence of living then? Three Viennese psychotherapists came up with three distinctly different answers:

• Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) claimed that it was the ‘will to pleasure’
• Alfred Adler (1870-1937) argued that it was the ‘will to power’
• Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) contended that it was the ‘will to meaning’

All of them have a kernel of truth, for it’s difficult to imagine humans flourishing without each of these incommensurable components, although the mix would be different for every person. Perhaps they are stages in life. When one is young it’s mostly about pleasure; in adulthood our focus is on power and control and in old age we become makers of meaning. But we are always concerned with all three.

One suspects that Peter Drucker would have supported Frankl’s emphasis on our quest for meaning. Frankl wrote that meaning could be found in three contexts that were close to Drucker’s own experience:

• Through significant work and achievement
• Through relationships, love and caring
• Though suffering and courage in times of adversity

Once again, all three are surely necessary for a meaningful life. Frankl stressed the importance of the individual sense of responsibility that has to emerge from these experiences, the responsibility to accept the different tasks that life sets for every one of us and to find answers to the problems that we face. Echoing Nietzsche, he writes, “He (who) knows the ‘why’ for his existence, … will be able to bear almost any ‘how’”, which reminds one of Drucker’s thoughts on the primary responsibility of leaders to continually articulate the mission and purpose of their organizations.

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Renewing the American Republic: The Ecodynamics of Donald Trump Part II

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President-elect Donald Trump

In the early hours of Wednesday November 9 2016 I was as bemused as everyone else. Donald Trump had won the presidential election and would be the 45th President of the United States. The last polls I saw had given Hillary Clinton about an 80% chance of winning and none of the commentators had seen an upset coming. As a Canadian, however, I thought that the Americans had an awful choice to make and in the end the man I wanted to lose had beaten the woman I wanted to lose…. After my initial shock wore off I started to think through what had happened and what is likely to happen from an ecological/systems perspective.

Back in March I wrote about the ecodynamics of Donald Trump. I said that it was helpful to look at society and its institutions, not as static systems, but as ecological processes. From this perspective successful social institutions are conceived in passion, born in communities of trust, grow through the application of reason and mature in power. Here they tend to get stuck in systemic traps, structures that conserve the habits that made them successful, but render them inward-looking and insensitive to the changes that are going on outside. In his book, The Rise and Decline of Nations economist Mancur Olson describes how, over time, vested interests and rent seekers clog the system and prevent meaningful change. When this happens, as their familiar narratives break down, societies often reach for outsiders, radicals on the fringes, who offer either new narratives or the revival of old ones. Trump’s narrative is the latter, the promise to “Make American Great Again”, and restore an era of growth and prosperity last seen in the 1950s and 1960s.

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Wells Fargo: Culture Eats Strategy (again) and (this time) the CEO

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Happier Times – John Stumpf, CEO of Wells Fargo on the cover of Forbes in 2012

Over the decades organizational culture has devoured hundreds, if not thousands of strategies. One of the most recent examples is the case of Wells Fargo, where culture not only ate a long-standing, apparently successful strategy but last week also consumed its CEO, John Stumpf, who resigned under enormous pressure. The headline story in the business section of news in the past few weeks has been that over the past five years the bank has fired 5,300 employees (10% of whom are branch managers or higher) for opening new accounts without the customer’s permission. Apparently this was the unintended consequence of an aggressive strategy focused on cross-selling: if a customer has a checking account why not sell them a car loan together with credit card, mortgage and wealth management services? With the profit margin on straight lending squeezed by low interest rates, cross-selling has become the modern mantra for bankers and even used to justify mergers and acquisitions for the cross-selling opportunities they present. Objectives and targets for cross-selling were embedded into Wells Fargo’s performance management system and ridden herd on by layers of hard-driving executives. At the top was Carrie Tolstedt, Senior Executive Vice President of Community Banking, known to some within the bank as ‘the watchmaker’ for her obsessive concern with detail. An investor briefing on the business reveals a mechanistic model of the economics of retail banking with the profitability of cross-selling on clear display: customers with eight accounts with Wells Fargo are five times as profitable as those with only three (the industry average). The so-called “Gr-eight initiative” was the bank’s internal goal of selling at least eight different financial products to each customer.

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Brexit: Crisis and Opportunity for Britain and the EU – a Systems Perspective

“In a multi-layered complex system stability is achieved by having the big and/or slow processes govern through constraint the smaller, faster processes. Sudden change can take place in a complex system when agents at one level escape the constraints usually exercised by agents in another part of the system.” This is a quote from my book, Learning from the Links, a systems perspective on golf and management. I was making the case that in a golf swing the big, slow muscles of the torso should constrain the smaller, faster movement of the shoulders and arms that, in their turn, should limit the even quicker movement of the hands. When the hands escape these constraints, the system becomes unstable and the result is an erratic golf swing over which one has little control.

The same principle applies to all complex systems, including political ones. The Founding Fathers ensured that this was the case in the structure of the American government when they wisely arranged the different branches of government in a systems hierarchy of constraint. The House of Representatives is elected every two years, Presidents every four years, the Senate every six years (on staggered terms) and the Supreme Court is elected for life. For similar reasons James Madison favoured representative democracy and rule by experts over direct democracy and rule by faction. The intent was to create a stable system of checks and balances that could handle only modest change and would not be subject to sudden radical movements. There are similar hierarchies of constraint in parliamentary systems. An elected House of Commons turns over much faster than an appointed Senate (in the case of Canada) and the hereditary House of Lords in the UK. The Canadian Senate is the “Chamber of Sober Second Thought”, whose role is to reconsider and modify the sometimes impulsive actions coming to it from below in the systems hierarchy.

From a systems perspective, when British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to a referendum on whether to remain with or leave the European Union he was risking that a small fast system might escape the constraints of representative democracy and the sovereignty of Parliament. It has escaped and the result is crisis and chaos. But it is also opportunity for both Britain and the EU.

The Lost Narrative of the European Union

Three years ago I gave a presentation to the International Forum on the Future of Europe in Vilnius, Lithuania. In it I suggested that the problem with the EU was that it had lost its narrative and become an anonymous, rule-driven bureaucracy of technocrats. I used an ecological perspective to show how the EU had been born in the aftermath of the Second European Thirty Year War (1914-1945) as a passionate movement to avoid further conflict among the nations of Europe. After initial success, greatly aided by the rebuilding of Europe’s shattered infrastructure (catalyzed by theMarshall Plan), it became a series of increasingly ambitious economic and political projects. In that process, however, like all successful institutions, it became much larger, more calculative, rule-driven and bureaucratic. The stories told by economists and bureaucrats are rarely compelling and, as the original narrative was lost, means became ends-in-themselves.

Economic attachments are fragile. We may work for money, but we live for story. An ecological perspective suggested that any “buy-in” would be temporary at best and that the resulting tepid commitment would fluctuate with the EU’s economic fortunes. In good times people might mildly favour the European enterprise, but in tough times they would tend to default to their national narratives and identities that are much more emotionally powerful. This is especially true if economic gains are spread unevenly and significant segments of the population feel left out and ignored. The result was widespread euroscepticism that, as Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) proclaimed, was all about national identity.  The Brexit Referendum became a contest between technicians in favour of the status quo and populists promising a return of a Little England narrative. The story won.

With Crisis Comes Opportunity

“Never let a good crisis go to waste” is a quote often attributed to Winston Churchill but never sourced. I think that the idea probably comes from Ancient China and perhaps the I Ching (Book of Changes). In my first book, Crisis & Renewal, I explored the role that crisis plays in the renewal of complex systems. Wind and fire, flood and pestilence clear away old growth in temperate forests and open up patches, where there is equal access to water and light. Here, young organisms fueled by nutrients from a recycled past, can flourish and renew the system.

In Britain it seems likely that the old political party arrangements no longer reflect the new divisions in the electorate. The old bitter arguments about means – varieties of capitalism or socialism – may have been replaced by a sharper disagreement about ends and alternative narratives – Little England or Great Britain? The Labour Party seems to be a “walking ghost”. It performed poorly in the referendum, with many of its members ignoring its call to “Remain”. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, now faces a leadership contest that, even if he wins, leaves the party divided and in poor shape to fight a general election. From the Right Nigel Farage and UKIP threaten the Conservative Party. Indeed it was this threat that David Cameron tried to quell by agreeing to a referendum in the first place. Perversely, he has succeeded only in reinforcing UKIP, clearing the way for them to become a political power domestically. So the Brexit crisis may act as a catalyst for the reform and reconfiguration Britain’s political parties, something that would be extraordinarily difficult to do in normal times.

As for the EU, it’s time for its leaders to reflect upon the entire project. Those with direct experience of World War II are nearly gone and with their passing the founding narratives of the EU become a distant memory. The administrative integration of the EU’s members needs to be needs to be slowed and even rolled back. The creation of the Euro was a bold but premature move, freezing the system when it still needed significant wiggle room. All the attention should be on a regenerating the European narrative and the creation of compelling experiences that build and maintain it. It won’t be easy. The challenge was well stated by the late historian Tony Judt in his paradoxical thesis that Europe has been able to rebuild itself politically and economically only by forgetting the past, but that it can define itself morally and culturally only by remembering it. Perhaps it’s time to start the process again with the generations born since 1945.

Nothing lasts unless it is incessantly renewed…

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Why Business Books Still Speak Volumes

It’s easy to be critical of business books. What had been a dull cottage industry until the publication of Tom Peters; and Bob Waterman’s In Search of Excellence (1982) became an exuberant enterprise that churns out a vast number of products in many subcategories. Business books, in other words, have become a big business. The motives and abilities of the writers who toil in these segments — self- help, how-to, CEO biographies, corporate narratives, big-picture panoramas, focused functional pieces, to name a few— are as widely varied as the categories themselves. Serious research-based, academic efforts, sometimes well written but often full of impenetrable jargon, share shelf space with ghostwritten executive vanity puffs: sweet confections designed to buff images. There is a steady deluge of books from consultants, for whom business books are, at a minimum, thick business cards and essential to establishing their credentials.

As is the case with every genre, a few of these books are fantastic, some are good, and many are, alas, quite bad. At times, business books can read like expanded articles, bloated blogs, or padded PowerPoint presentations. Many writers assume that success implies capability and we can all become successful simply by studying success. The evidence for this is equivocal at best and riddled with attribution bias (our tendency to take credit for our successes while blaming failures on factors beyond our control). Much business writing poses an even subtler problem: a failure or perhaps a reluctance to recognize that while the “whats” in business — desirable outcomes — are generic, the “hows” are particular, specific to each and every organization. It’s true, for example, that an enterprise’s strategy and organization must be “aligned,” but what that means and how to do it in this organization, with our people, right here, right now is much less obvious. Organizations are complex systems, in which cause-and-effect is nonlinear, path-dependent (history matters), and often unknowable in prospect. Deciding what to do (or not do), and how and when to do (or not do) “it,” is a matter of judgment and experience, as managers try to accomplish short-term objectives while keeping their longer run options open. As a result, consumers of business books that offer simplistic checklist-driven solutions run the risk of being trapped between one-off stories that cannot be replicated and universal principles that cannot be practiced because they are too abstract.

If they can’t tell us what to do, how can business books help in such a world? And how, in the age of 140-character tweets, disappearing SnapChat texts, and highly attenuated attention spans, can we justify spending hours, or a whole day, engaging with a 400-page volume? As a professional consumer (over the years, I have reviewed nearly 150 books for s+b), producer (I’ve written three myself), and avid fan, I can think of three principal reasons.

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