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Words and Looks: Leadership Lessons from A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol First Edition

Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol, was first published on December 19, 1843. So it’s close enough to roll this blog out again. Happy Holidays to all!

Management gurus have drawn lessons on leadership from diverse sources, ranging from the practices of Attila the Hun to the fictional events in Star Trek. Yet they seem to have missed one of the finest accounts of transformation and change familiar to us all. It is Charles Dickens’ best-loved story, A Christmas Carol. He said that he himself laughed and cried over it more than anything else he wrote, and it can still have that effect on us today. For there is a little bit (perhaps more than a little) of Ebenezer Scrooge in each of us and Dickens’ penetrating observation of the condition of our “shut-up hearts” is as relevant now as it was 179 years ago. As everyone knows, it is the story of personal renewal, of the conversion of a grasping, joyless taskmaster into a public benefactor and caring friend. Dickens also outlines a process of change, which many modern organizations might try to follow. Indeed, as a story of personal and organizational transformation, it reports results that would delight any change consultant. Of course Scrooge had three consultants…

Scrooge’s transformation begins in crisis, with the disturbing appearance of the ghost of his former partner, Joseph Marley, seven years after his death. It seems that real change often demands a crisis – a manifest failure of the status quo – to smash the constraints, imagined or real, that bind people and their organizations. Shocked out of his comfortable routines and intellectual self-assurance, Scrooge is prepared for the visions to be shown him of the Past, Present and Future. For change in behaviour takes experience, not just exposure to ideas, and Scrooge has to be immersed in each of these dimensions of time if he is to be changed. He must relive the past, truly experience the present and anticipate the future.

In his visit to the Past Scrooge sees himself as the lonely young boy he once was: neglected by his family and bullied at school, but full of imaginative ideas and youthful enthusiasms. He sees his beloved sister Fan and old values and aspirations are reawakened. Following the chronology of events, he revisits the firm where he was apprenticed under his first master, Mr. Fezziwig. Here he experiences once again the excitement and warmth of that small community at the office Christmas party. When the Spirit disparages Fezziwig’s contribution and the small expenditure involved, Scrooge defends his former boss with powerful insight into the role he plays: “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy, to make our service light or burdensome, a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks, in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to count ‘em up; what then? The happiness he gives us is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” And the sudden recollection of this old role model makes Scrooge strangely thoughtful.

The sustaining power and warmth of community wherever it is to be found is the central theme of Scrooge’s experience of the Present. He sees the family of his poor clerk, Bob Cratchit, busily preparing for Christmas dinner. Bob Cratchit has few material possessions, but he has a rich life with his family, all of whom care deeply for each other. Dressed in their threadbare best, each member of the family has their own special role to play in the great ceremony. Scrooge is right there with them, participating in every activity. All his senses are alive again: the smell of goose and applesauce, sage and onion, and the steamy aroma of the pudding. After dinner, as the family sits in a circle round the hearth drinking each others’ health, he hears Tiny Tim, physically crippled but spiritually whole, give his brave blessing. The joy of community continues at his nephew’s house, his nephew who is now the only connection left with his dead sister. Indeed, the story is now about the development and sustenance of relationships. The small group entertains itself with music, song and games in which Scrooge takes part. Once again he feels at first hand what it is like to belong among a community of friends.

The Spirit of Christmas Future comes to Scrooge hooded and silent, part of the darkness, reflecting its mysterious, unfathomable nature. The future that Scrooge sees is a jumble of events, a series of scenes (we would call them scenarios today) in no particular order, and yet he has more control here than he had in either the Past or the Present. He is able to move about, to explore and to ask the Spirit to wait a while. It gradually becomes clear to him that the Future he is seeing is not something that inevitably will be: it is something that may be. The Future can be changed. And with the realization of what he needs to do to change and through an effort of sheer Will, Scrooge succeeds for the briefest of moments in grasping the spectral hand of the Future. “I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future”, he cries “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that teach.”

At the end of A Christmas Carol then, we begin to understand our own condition. To have a shut-up heart is to be stuck in Time, to be chained on the treadmill of the Present, without an appreciation of Past and Future. It is to be locked up with our own concerns; senseless and separated from the community of others. It is to be obsessed with superficialities and abstractions, for our spirits, like Marley’s, never to rove beyond the narrow limits of our “money-changing holes”. We also gain insight into the nature of leadership and even of how change consultants might help the process. Leadership is about the recreation of community, about reconnecting the narratives of people’s lives: giving meaning to the past, explaining the present and supplying guidance for the future. The best leaders are continually aware of their place in time: they are always dealing with endings and beginnings. Too often, as managers, we just seem to muddle along in the middle.

There are crises a-plenty in our organizations and institutions today: but the message of A Christmas Carol is that in crisis there is opportunity. It is a sobering thought, but in that realization there is redemption. As Dickens put it, “Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!” And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

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Don’t Mistake Outputs for Inputs: The Folly of Trying to Plant “Cut Flowers”

Why does so much management advice sound reasonable but turn out to be of little value? Most readers will know what I mean. Take the following guidance on how companies can ‘accelerate their agile transformation’:

  1. Create a C-suite with an agile mindset
  2. Hire and develop the right mix of talent
  3. Foster an agile-friendly culture and organizational structure

What’s not to like? Well, that’s the problem. The first test of any management advice is to ask, “Is the opposite also true?” If not, then the statement is a simple truism like each of those above. Clearly one wouldn’t want a C-suite with an anti-agile mindset nor a firm with the wrong mix of talent and so on.

Nevertheless, some truisms bear restating because they deal with priorities – necessary conditions – without which change efforts may fail. So, we should look at this advice more closely. The problem is that each of the sentences is a linguistic trick. It starts with a verb, which makes it sound like an action, but it’s really an achievement, a desirable outcome. This is why one can’t disagree with them. They are like cut flowers: the spectacular result of a creative process but not its cause. They are emblems of success, outputs not inputs. To be truly helpful these generic ‘whats’ will have to be turned into specific ‘hows’ – how to ‘create a C-suite with an agile mindset’ in this organization, in our situation, with these people, right here, right now. And that’s where things get difficult. Every organization is different: history and context matter. Priorities will differ and what works in one situation may not work in another. And in the end it will turn out that the cluster of attitudes we call an ‘agile mindset’, like so many other ‘success factors’, is itself an emergent property, a consequence of a successful change effort, not its cause.

Many writers gloss over these problems by treating corporations as if they were rational decision-makers, actors in their own right, with clear goals. Companies are said to have ‘found ways to infuse a higher-purpose calling into their culture’, they ‘leverage their core capabilities to enter new growth markets’ and ‘unleash the creative abilities of their people’. Personifying corporations as actors in their own right may be useful for headlines but it’s unhelpful when we are trying to understand cause-and-effect in complex systems. When The New York Times publishes a report that “Boeing Fired Its Leader” its journalists are using writers’ shorthand to report the outcome of a complex process, not to describe the decision of a lone actor.

What Is To Be Done? Grow Your Own Flowers!

Peter Drucker contended that a every business had two tasks: the one administrative, the other entrepreneurial. Administration is needed to make the today’s business effective (efficiency is a minimum condition) and entrepreneurship is needed to create tomorrow’s business. These are the twin elements of performance.

Unfortunately, these two activities demand different logics, the one analytic and the other integrative. Administrative logic is that of the engineer: breaking down complicated mechanisms into their elements, identify causes and optimizing the parts to improve the whole. Or perhaps it that of the plumber: clearing blockages and stopping leaks. Whatever the metaphor, it is an analytic process and it has been the default approach for Anglo-American managers for the past seventy years. It is necessary but not sufficient. Used on its own, it has been the root cause of a lot of true-but-useless management advice that ignores history and context.

For the logic of entrepreneurship is integrative, synthesizing rather than analytic. It is more like that of a gardener than a plumber, someone who brings together people and resources: selecting people for their growth potential and the contributions they can make and then creating and maintaining the conditions in which they can grow, individually and collectively.  It’s about anticipating effects through pattern recognition developed through experience from the past, mixed with a vision of future. Gone are the clarity and certainty of administration to be replaced by the confusion and uncertainty of innovation.

The twin logics are often described as scientific management and humanistic management respectively, but the relationship between them has been a vexed one. As recently as a decade ago Adrian Wooldridge, Bagehot columnist for The Economist, described it as a ‘battleground’ between hard and soft management.  Paradoxically, successful entrepreneurial activities have plenty of vision, leavened with strict observance to detail and process There is a complex dynamic between contradictory, yet interdependent processes. The result is dilemmas that have to be lived, rather than problems to be solved.  With dilemmas, opposites are always true, depending on the context. To plan for the future we have to know the past.

Thus the practice of management is all about sense-making, using the integrative powers of narrative to make sense of the situation in which the enterprise finds itself, what the people know and can do and the actions the situation demands. It is about creating the conditions for emergence. It’s about helping individuals understand their own stories, make meaning from their experiences and anticipating what might happen.

Ancient Wisdom

This blog began with some simple truisms so it’s fitting that it should end with some profound truths. This is the wisdom from the past that, it sometimes seems, we have to keep on discovering and rediscovering through experience:

Over a century ago, management pioneer Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933), one of Drucker’s greatest resources wrote:

“The skillful leader then does not rely on personal force; he (sic) controls his group not by dominating it but by expressing it. He stimulates what is best in us; he unifies and concentrates what we feel only gropingly and scatteringly, but he never gets away from the current of which we and he are both an integral part. He is a leader who gives form to the inchoate energy in every man. The person who influences me most is not he who does great deeds but he who makes me feel that I can do great deeds.” (The New State, 1918)

And 1,500 years before Follett, Lao Tzu, the semi-legendary author of the Tao Te Ching, wrote something like this:

Learn from the people

Plan with the people

Begin with what they have

Build on what they know

Of the best leaders

When their task is accomplished

The people all remark

“We have done it ourselves.”


Regular readers of my writing will recognize this blog for the 2022 Drucker Forum as a modified and much abridged version of

Over forty years ago I went through a management experience that changed my life and career path. The firm I was working for was taken over in a leveraged buy-out that went spectacularly wrong. For the next four years we managed through chaos to a new order, transforming people in the process. The HBR article I wrote and subsequent book became “best sellers” and set me off on a decades-long quest to understand what had happened to us and why.

Now, forty years later, I think I have a better idea of what the real issues are. It all begins with the acknowledgement that the tensions between scientific and humanistic management are part of a much deeper set of dualities that spiral throughout our existence as individuals, families, communities, organizations and societies. They have grown in complexity as our cultures and our institutions have grown more complex. They coil through philosophy in general and the history of management thought in particular. Here the dualities are familiar; exploitation vs. exploration, calculation vs. judgement, individual vs. team, performance vs. learning, detachment vs. immersion and so on and on.

To grapple with the tensions – the dilemmas and the paradoxes that underly them – it is helpful to adopt a dual-process approach to cognition. Such frameworks have been around since the beginning of recorded history, but they are more prevalent in Eastern thought e.g. Taoist philosophy, than they are in the West. This is starting to change e.g. Daniel Kahneman in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow. He, together with some other cognitive scientists, call them System 1 and System 2. System 1 a.k.a. ‘intuition’ is unconscious. It works fast, effortlessly and associatively and it is often emotionally charged. System 2 a.k.a. ‘reasoning’ is slower, conscious, effortful and deliberately controlled. It often follows rules.

Kahneman set out to show the flaws in System 1 and developed what has been called the heuristics and biases (HB) approach. It has been widely embraced by mainstream Anglo-American management thinkers, who are devoted to the Rational Choice Model and System 2. The HB approach has been criticized by people like Gerd Gigerenzer, who demonstrate the power of System 1 to make “fast frugal” decision under conditions of uncertainty. More recently I have learned of Gary Klein’s work on Naturalistic Decision Making (NDM) that throws light on what we mean by intuition. Klein has studied how experts (firefighters, emergency room personnel etc.) make decisions under conditions of time pressure, high stakes, inadequate information and uncertainty.  He found that they do not identify options, evaluate outcomes and use rational choice models. Instead, they used their experience (personal and vicarious) to recognize patterns, simulate the results of actions and then act. Interestingly Kahneman and Klein wrote a paper together titled “Failure to Disagree”. In it they agreed that HB seemed to work as better approach in laboratory situations dealing with toy problems, while NDM was better in practice handling real ones.

In short, when you are trying to make sense of people, enterprises and management, history and context matter!

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The Ecology of Digital Transformation: Sense-Making in Silicon Valley

The “Cradle” of Silicon Valley – the Hewlett-Packard Garage at 367 Addison Avenue, Palo Alto (

I have just returned from a week of “educating” in Palo Alto, where the third residency module of the 2022 De Groote EMBA Digital Transformation was taking place. Palo Alto is, of course, the epicentre of the great disruption known as “digital transformation”, the focus of this EMBA. The week consisted of formal “teaching” sessions combined with field trips to local enterprises and presentations from and meetings with local experts in a wide variety of topics.  For the excited EMBA candidates and the faculty it’s the highlight of the program. As one travels from the airport to Palo Alto itself, the highway is lined with buildings bearing the names of corporations that have featured so prominently in the revolution. Their names appear constantly on the business pages and they feature in business cases everywhere. As we turned into Page Mill Road on our way to the Stanford University Campus, I tried to remember why the name was so familiar. It was only when we passed the Hewlett-Packard head office that I realized that 1501 has been its long-time corporate address (since 1960!). Apparently inside the officially designated “Birthplace of Silicon Valley” the offices of the founders remain intact.

The Power of Context

Not only are Palo Alto and Stanford University the epicentre of the digital revolution, but California is also an example of the fire-dependent ecosystems on which my ecological sense-making framework is based. The Stanford Faculty Club, where the lectures are held is set in a lush garden. Through the twin double-doors, which were always open during our stay, one can see a pair of coastal redwoods (sequoia sempervirens) soaring above the garden canopy. They provide a wonderful “object lesson” for one of our strategy discussions that contrasts sequoias with banyans:

The strategy of sequoias is analogous to that of the giant enterprises of the industrial era that built large monolithic hierarchies, well-suited to pursuing the economies of scale, although often at the expense of quality. In the U.S. they flourished in the 20th Century until the 1980s when a new social technology – lean manufacturing – changed the trade-off between quantity and quality. Unlike the fire-resistant sequoias these giant industrial bureaucracies did not prove to be sempervirens – everlasting!

The strategy of the banyans, which is native to Pakistan and India (where it is the national tree), is analogous to that of network organizations like Google (Alphabet) and Facebook (Meta) that have been disrupting “legacy” organizations. The banyan is known colloquially as the “strangler fig”. Fruit-eating birds and bats spread its seeds far and wide, and they often fall on the branches and stems of other trees and buildings. Here, over time, they grow to “strangle” their hosts:

A Banyan Tree Growing on a Temple at Angor Wat (Pinterest)

Together with the sequoia, the banyan makes for a graphic metaphorical contrast between two fundamentally different ecological approaches to structure and strategy.


Earlier in this post I put “teaching” in quotes because several years ago I realized that I couldn’t teach experienced managers anything in the formal sense of the word. The best I could do was to help them make sense of their experience, to organize and make explicit what they already knew, but didn’t know that they knew.  It is knowledge gained on the far side of experience. This is “education” in the original meaning of the word to “lead forth”, to help the participants recognize the unique value of their experience and the gifts they bring to the world. As such, it is closer to the German concept of bildung and its association with the bildungsroman – a narrative of growth and development in which a person learns the ways of the world and comes to terms with the need for both self-fulfillment and the social roles they must play. Bildung is intrinsically valuable, a process of cultivation, a journey without beginning or end in which people are stretched to their limits to realize their potential.

There is no direct English equivalent of bildung, a reflection, perhaps, of how instrumentally rational the Anglo-American worldview has become, with its preoccupation with techniques and methodologies. In his book, Return to Reason, philosopher Stephen Toulmin argued that ever since the European Enlightenment the concept of reason has been gradually diminished to that of rationality. Reason implies reasonableness and common sense derived from experience. Rationality, on the other hand, has a more formal, logical flavour to it. Reason is situational and context-dependent; rationality is abstract and context-free. Reason’s relevant narratives are always in tension with rationality’s rigorous arguments. According to Toulmin what was the Age of Reason has become the Age of Rationality and we have hardly noticed that it has happened and what has been lost in the process.

The relationship between reason and rationality is clearer in the German distinction between Vernunft (reason) and Verstand (intellect). According to Goethe “Vernunft is concerned with what is becoming…(it) rejoices in whatever evolves; Verstand wants to hold everything still so that it can utilize it.” Here is the tension between change and continuity that so preoccupied Peter Drucker throughout his long career. There is an ethical connotation to Vernunft that is missing from Verstand; reason is concerned with right and wrong, while rationality focuses only on true and false. These differences are echoed in Drucker’s contention that management is always a moral practice, not just a technical one.

Because German thinkers made the separation between reason and rationality so clear, they were also concerned with the complex relationship between the two. Sometimes Vernunft was seen as superior, at other times Verstand was on top. Kant’s view was that the relationship was reciprocal: reason gave something to rationality and rationality unpacked it before handing it back for further processing. Reason contained rationality, giving it a foundation below and a regulatory roof over its head – a “home” in which it could dwell.  I suspect that Toulmin would argue that it is the loss of this dwelling that has resulted in a footloose rationality with imperial ambitions that has done so much damage to organizations, institutions and societies – not because it is “wrong” but because it incomplete and it has been misapplied.

A Sense-making Framework

Hannah Arendt contended that Verstand (intellect) was associated with the search for truth, while Vernunft was all about the quest for meaning and that humans need them both. My Ecology of Organizing course (titled formally as Organizational Behaviour for Decision-making) is all about the making of meaning. As such, it consists of a sense-making framework that uses analogical inquiry, rather than the analytical thinking that pervades MBA courses in general. The ecological framework, based on Canadian ecologist C.S. “Buzz” Holling’s work on the adaptive cycle and the multilevel panarchy frameworks, does not abstract organizations and people from time, space and scale, the key elements of context. Rather, it acts as a theory of context that an inquirer uses as a preliminary screen to help form their expectations, sensitize them to the relevant cues and suggest plausible goals and actions. The framework also acts as a storehouse of models that categorize and methodologies that prescribe, suggesting which ones might be useful and when. I hope that, like the banyan tree, the sense-making framework, while rooted in practice, supplies a philosophical roof over the head of intellect. This is what Goethe contended Vernunft gave to Verstand. It creates for managers a new sense-making narrative that embraces and contains instrumental rationality and keeps it and its related technologies, such as artificial intelligence, in their proper places as servants and not as masters.

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The Ecology of Organizing: A Management Course for the 21st Century

For the past six years or so I have been teaching what I call the “ecology of organizing” on masters-level programs at both McGill University in Montreal and the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Ontario. Here is my latest curriculum outline:

This course is a non-traditional one, based on systemic thinking, complexity theory, and a dual-process approach to understanding (embodied) human cognition. The analogies are organic and ecological and the primary polarities are between the logico-scientific and narrative approaches to understanding the process of organizing in complex social systems. Science takes things apart to see how they work, narrative puts things together to see what they mean. The philosophical underpinnings are pragmatic (is it helpful?) rather than positivist (is it true?). As such, the course is often critical of conventional management thinking and constantly questions the nature of the evidence on which managers base (or at least justify) their decisions. It becomes clear that management is not just a technical practice, preoccupied with meeting corporate goals, but also a moral practice concerned with assessing the worthiness of those goals, both for the enterprise and for society. The result is an anticipatory, sense-making framework that allows you to approach organizations as if they were created by people with bodies and intentions, situated in time and space, culture and society, searching for identity and meaning and struggling for credibility and authority. In short, history matters and context matters.

The overall objective is to develop the participants’ capacity to make meaning from their experiences.

Upon completion of this course, participants will be able to:

  • Use multiple perspectives (lenses) to appreciate complex adaptive socio-technical systems and the complex (wicked) problems that can emerge from them.
  • Recognize systems dynamics across multiple levels: the organization, its contexts (industries, markets) and its components (technology, products, teams and individuals).
  • Come away with an ecological framework that allows them to discern the situation in any organization and sort out what kinds of people with what habits and experiences might be able to contribute and what tools and techniques might be helpful.
  • Grapple with the generative tensions between exploitation and exploration, technical problems and adaptive challenges, management and leadership, detachment and immersion, the individual and the group, conflict and cooperation, continuity and change, plumbing and poetry…. and what it takes to navigate among them.
  • Understand the difference between experience-based Naturalistic Decision Making (Recognition-Primed Decision-making) and the Rational Choice (Heuristics and Biases) model. The former, in combination with a sense-making framework, gives one a bearing on where the enterprise is in time, space and scale. This helps form expectations and sensitize one to relevant cues, while suggesting plausible goals and possible actions.
  • View organizations as nests of dynamic cooperative activities that have evolved to handle uncertainty, not as command-and-control machines. From this perspective, strategy, leadership and organizing are all emergent entrepreneurial activities, embracing awareness, insight, discovery, judgement, persuasion, practice and learning.
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Social Renewal: The Story of the Quakers and the First Industrial Revolution

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained . . . infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

I have just published a lengthy piece in Medium about social renewal and the role of the Quakers in the First Industrial Revolution. It is an extended and enhanced revision of material that first appeared in Chapter 4 of my book, Crisis & Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change (Harvard Business School Press, 1995/2002). It is based on a trip I made to Iron Bridge, Shropshire in the early 1990s.

I take an ecological perspective of enterprises, political, social and commercial. They are conceived in passion, born in communities of trust and practice, grow through the application of reason and mature in power. Here they tend to get stuck, which sets them up for crisis and destruction, but with the possibility of renewal. An ecological framework does notabstract people from time, space and scale, the essential dimensions of context, but places them within the larger social and political narratives. Context matters, history matters and stories matter.

Unless we understand the context in which social renewals take place, we cannot hope to understand what we need to do today to renew our economic, social and political enterprises. The story of the Quakers, their emergence and innovativeness,  growth and success, maturity and decline, is both inspirational and cautionary.

I hope that you find it thought provoking….

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Cuttlefish Spurting Out Ink: English and the Projection of Power

An Octopus Squirting Ink

The Guardian reported today that a massive leak from a whistleblower in the private bank, Credit Suisse, had exposed the hidden wealth of clients who are involved in torture, drug trafficking, money laundering, corruption and other crimes.

The bank responded, “Credit Suisse strongly rejects the allegations and inferences about the bank’s purported business practices. The matters presented are predominantly historical, in some cases dating back as far as the 1960s, including at a time where laws, practices and expectations of financial institutions were very different from where they are now…. Furthermore, the accounts of these matters are based on partial, selective information taken out of context, resulting in tendentious interpretations of the bank’s business conduct. While Credit Suisse cannot comment on potential client relationships, we can confirm that actions have been taken in line with applicable policies and regulatory requirements at the relevant times, and that related issues have already been addressed.”

This sounds like, “We use to do this, but we don’t do it anymore because the laws have changed.” There is no mention of the morality of their actions.

English as a Two-Tier Language

It’s interesting to note Credit Suisse’s use of the English vocabulary to distance itself from its actions. Ever since the Norman invasion of 1066, English has been a two-tiered language. Before that date everyone spoke Anglo-Saxon, Germanic English. For three hundred years after the Norman conquest of England the nobility and the upper class (court, church and army) spoke French. They were eventually anglicized, and a Latin-based English vocabulary entered the language.

Anglo-Saxon English is the language of intimacy—relationships, emotion, and commitment; we use it predominantly in face-to-face communication. Latin English is the language of distance—formality, thought, and erudition. It is the language of power.

This two-tiered nature of our language explains many curiosities in English. We call farm animals cows, calves, and sheep (from the Germanic Kuh, Kalb, and Schaf) because their herders were Anglo-Saxon. However, we eat beef, veal, and mutton (from the French boeuf, veau, and mouton) because the people who ate them originally were Normans.

The words for the members of the nuclear family—mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter—are all Germanic, as are the words expressing various relationships: before, after, under, on, in, to, of, for, and. All our swearwords are Germanic in origin, and their popularity seems to stem from their unique ability to express activities of the body. Here are some key contrasts between the two layers of language:

Anglo-Saxon English Latin English
visceral cerebral
profane sacred
monosyllabic polysyllabic
low caste high caste
concrete abstract
action thought

As a result, many things can be said in English using either the Germanic or Romance (Latin English) vocabularies. The plainness and directness of words of Germanic origin are also obvious in business English:

Anglo-Saxon English Latin English
do execute
hire employ
fire terminate
start initiate
drill exercise
skill competence

When executives and corporations are trying to finesse their actions, they often use the Romance version of English because it makes them sound knowledgeable. Skilled professionals, particularly lawyers and doctors, have typically used Latin English to separate themselves from the “common folk.” Surgeons refer to the parts of the body by their Latin anatomical names: this makes for precision in description and also helps distance the surgeon from the person who “owns” the body part. Legal language produces a similar effect by enhancing the dispassionate rationality of the judicial process. Mainstream management academics use it to make themselves seem erudite and sophisticated. It may be the main reason why so much of their writing is unintelligible to management practitioners! Although practitioners in large organizations will find themselves using a higher-flown vocabulary when they communicate ‘upward’ to get resources than when they talk ‘downward’ to get action.

As in the case of Credit Suisse, Latin English can also be used to distance actors from their actions: President Clinton’s lawyer in the Lewinsky affair stated during the Senate impeachment proceedings that his client was prepared to “accept the obloquy” (from the Latin word obloquium, meaning “talk against”) due to him because of his behavior. It sounded almost like an award of some kind! Similarly, the military does not drop bombs but “delivers ordnance”; troops don’t kill women and children but “cause collateral damage.”

George Orwell understood the use of this “inflated” style of language better than anyone, “A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” (Politics and the English Language 1945/46)


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Podcast “Lead Like a Gardener: An Ecological Approach to Wicked Problems

Last week I did a podcast with Toby Corballis of Wicked Problems. Toby is an agile business transformation specialist based in The Hague in the Netherlands. I had been attracted to his site by his earlier excellent interview with Keith Grint and felt it would be a great opportunity to discuss an ecological approach to wicked problems.

We had a really good discussion and you can see the video here.

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Why Management by Objectives Fails (and so may OKR)

Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933)

With the annual Drucker Forum now taking place in Vienna it’s timely to reflect on Management by Objectives (MBO), the most enduring and popular of the ideas that Peter Drucker championed. MBO was not original to Drucker. He probably owed the idea to Mary Parker Follett and her concept of the law of the situation, expressed thirty years before him: “My solution is to depersonalize the giving of orders, to unite all concerned in a study of the situation, to discover the law of the situation and obey that…. One person should not give orders to another person, but both should agree to take their orders from the situation.” (The Giving of Orders, 1926).

In Chapter 11 of his 1954 book, The Practice of Management, titled “Management By Objectives and Self-control”, Drucker wrote, “A decision should always be made at the lowest possible level and as close to the scene of action as possible. Moreover, a decision should always be made at a level ensuring that all activities and objectives affected are fully considered. The first rule tells us how far down a decision should be made. The second how far down it can be made…”

Unfortunately, the tension between the two rules and the “self-control” aspect of MBO was soon lost in translation from a German cultural context (shared by both Drucker and Follett) to an American one. Here it morphed into a six-step, top-down process:

  1. Define organizational goals
  2. Define employee objectives
  3. Continuous monitoring performance and progress
  4. Performance evaluation
  5. Providing feedback
  6. Performance appraisal

In many organizations these performance goals are numerical and still linked to the budgeting process. Performance appraisal is based an employee’s ability to reach targets set at the beginning of the fiscal year…. The result in many organizations is an annual ordeal preparing budgets that are linked to individual compensation. The corporate head office tries to push the numbers as high as possible, arguing for ‘stretch’ goals, while operating managers try to get them as low as possible, theoretically to maximize their income but often just to make organizational life bearable. The resulting bad-tempered, adversarial process and the accompanying zero-sum game-playing perpetuates top-down, command-and-control management cultures. It wastes a prodigious amount of time and prolongs destructive competition within the organization, damaging trust and cooperation. It is the opposite of the “win-win” process proposed by Drucker that would, he hoped,  “harmonize the goals of the individual with the common weal.”

The European Context and the Giving of Orders

Why did this happen? To help answer this question it’s useful to examine the difficulties in translation of another Continental theory of management, that of mission command, first developed by the German General Staff in the 19th Century.

Mission Command

Helmut von Moltke the Elder (1819-1888) was the legendary chief of the German General Staff from 1857 to 1888.

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

The Staff had been born in crisis in the aftermath of Prussia’s defeat by Napoleon, and it grew up during a time when Prussia’s principal industry and export was war. The German General Staff reached the peak of its powers during Moltke the Elder’s era, as Germany became a united nation.

Moltke believed that strategy was a system of ad hoc expedients and that no plan could survive beyond the first contact with the enemy. This meant that commanders in the field had to have the maximum freedom of action and that the strategy should outline what was to be achieved without specifying how it was to be done. Moltke became an outspoken advocate of what came to be called “mission command”. Cascading sets of orders specified a superior’s intent, while leaving a clear space in which subordinates were expected to exercise their discretion. The emphasis was on taking those actions the situation demanded, and the best judge of that was the person on the spot. Sins of omission were seen as far more serious than sins of commission. This meant that the subordinates had to be highly competent and trusted; maximum freedom required great self-discipline, starting with selection and inculcated through rigorous training.

Auftragstaktik, “mission tactics”, as the Germans called it, wasn’t just tactics but a complete command philosophy of “leading by task”. The idea was to set boundaries, to bracket the options and to create spaces where everyone from the highest general to the lowliest enlisted man had discretion to act in the interest of achieving the overall mission. No commander should issue an order that went into more detail than the scale at which he could appreciate the situation. A commander should never tell a subordinate exactly what to do, for that would remove the subordinate’s discretion at precisely those scales where only the subordinate could take effective action. The same caution applied to the subordinate’s subordinate, and so on down the line. If subordinates did not have the leeway to make decisions and take action on their own, each at their own unique scale, then they – and their organization – could not learn.

The Prussian Army was hierarchical, but it was a hierarchy of constraints, not command-and-control. It embraced radically different theories of the nature of war, character and leadership, senior-subordinate relationships, training and education and so on.

Translation Problems

American military observers in Europe in the 19th Century seem to have had as much trouble grasping Auftragstaktik as their modern management counterparts have had in understanding the Drucker/Follett concept of Management By Objectives. In both cases the practitioners tended to look for tools and techniques, trying to strip the methodology from the philosophy and ignore the deep philosophical differences and assumptions about human nature. The American Army had no trouble translating the field manuals, often replicating them word for word, but reproducing the behavior was another matter.

Mission command, like MBO is not just a set of tools and techniques that can be learned and “applied”. If humans and their organizations were computers that could be programmed, then such a cut-and-paste approach might work, at least in principle. But they aren’t and it doesn’t. One has to adopt the whole philosophy and take the time to develop the individual habits and institutional disciplines that allow it to work effectively.

Auftragstaktik and Befehlstaktik

The German General Staff contrasted Auftragstaktik (leading by task) with Befehlstaktik (leading by orders), which tends to be the default mode for armed forces and large-scale organizations everywhere. The U.S. Army, in its efforts to inculcate mission command, put together a table to contrast the outcomes produced by the two. It is reproduced (with a minor correction) below:

When one looks at this table, all you have to do is substitute “MBO in Theory” for “Mission Command” and “MBO in Practice” for “Detailed Command” to have descriptions that match my reading of Drucker intention for MBO versus my experience of MBO in the Anglo-American workplace. Drucker emphasized the need for everyone to understand the mission of the organization and stressed the importance of self-discipline and management by self-control. But in practice this advice was swamped by his injunction to “set clear objectives” and the caution often wrongly attributed to him that “if it can’t be measured it can’t be managed”. The result in most of the corporations that I have been involved with has been numerical objectives, set top-down, cascaded throughout the organization and policed by myriad Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).  Instead of producing the outcomes in the left hand column, which was what most top management said was their intention, the result has been the right-hand column, which is still a pretty good description of the current situation in large organizations everywhere.

Mission command is still the gold standard for armed forces around the world. It has proved successful mainly in special forces, where the numbers are small and the selection rigorous. As soon as one starts dealing with large numbers and conscripts it becomes problematic. The German Army was probably the most successful at it during the two world wars, assisted by geographical and cultural features, some of which are unique to Germany and those conflicts. (See Martin van Creveld’s book Fighting Power: U.S and German Fighting Performance 1939-1945)

One reads that in the digital world many enterprises are replacing MBO with an Intel variation, popularized by their legendary CEO, Andy Grove, as Objectives and Key Results (OKR). Grove’s intent with OKRs sounds a lot like that of mission command: to avoid command-and-control hierarchies and allow every individual from top to bottom of the organizations to set their own ambitious goals. The objectives are quarterly, not annual and are not connected to compensation. Yet OKR seems to be aimed at problems that can be well-specified, with the steps to solve them laid out in advance and measured. In other words, they are designed to deal with complicated, “tame” challenges rather than complex “wicked” ones encountered in battle. Thus OKR may fail in the same way as MBO and for the same reasons: Anglo-American practitioners will try to strip the methodology from the philosophy and ignore the importance of context and the role of emergent strategy in organizational success.

Instrumental Rationality and Drucker’s Philosophy

Why do apparently well-intentioned, competent managers keep on aiming for one outcome and keep on getting its polar opposite? It cannot be about tools and techniques themselves; it must have something to do with philosophy, especially the instrumental rationality that still underpins so much of Anglo-American management practice and thought.

Wikipedia defines instrumental rationality as “a specific form of rationality focusing on the most efficient or cost-effective means to achieve a specific end, but not in itself reflecting on the value of that end”. It became a feature of American management early in the 20th Century as part of the Efficiency Movement in which Frederick Taylor played such a key role. It is the epitome of the “can-do” problem-solving mentality that takes problems as givens and enthusiastically sets out to solve them. It works well on stable, engineering-type, technical problems, where the problem can be clearly specified and decomposed into its constituent parts. It doesn’t work with complex, “wicked” problems, where the problems aren’t given but require framing, where the situation is constantly changing and there is no time to wait for optimal solutions. In short, it doesn’t work in battle and it doesn’t work in much of corporate life.

Drucker’s philosophy was eclectic; he always embraced tensions rather than choosing one side or another of apparent dichotomies. At its roots his outlook was European, heavily influenced by his “Humboldtian” educationand early exposure to the holistic Gestalt movement. His constant emphasis on the need for integration and synthesis, rather than mere analysis, can be traced back to here. But when he came to America and started to write about management, he presented himself as a rationalist. There seem to have been several reasons of this. The dominant view at that time was that management at the top was an art, not tractable to logic and the laws of probability. One of Drucker’s first proclamations was that the age of intuitive management was over and that an active, rational practice of management was not only possible but increasingly demanded by the circumstances.

Another reason, perhaps, for Drucker’s presentation of himself as a rationalist was that in the 1940s many executives regarded him, in his own words, as a “dangerous and subversive radical”.  With rivalry with the Soviet Union growing, it was not a time to be talking about “autonomous plant communities”. There was also a rationalist temper to the times. The Allied victory in World War II showed just how important science and technology were: the launch of Sputnik and the subsequent space race only added to this mood. There was a movement to rationalize management along scientific lines that would culminate in the reform of the leading American business schools in the late 1950s.

Drucker might have represented himself as a rationalist, but he knew that there were limits to rationality. It could be used on its own to deal with the objective world of the natural sciences but was inadequate to handle the all the challenges of the human condition. His profoundly Christian values, stemming from his early discovery of the writings of existentialist thinker Soren Kierkegaard, made ethics an integral part of management

Thus the philosophy that underpins Management by Objectives is an holist one that always combines ends and means in a relationship of “both…and” not “either/or”. This is an organic, ecological relationship rather than a mechanical, economic one and it is no coincidence that late in his career Peter Drucker would describe himself as a “social ecologist”. This is surely why both management by objectives (MBO) and mission command get into trouble when they are used as tools in organizations where people are treated merely as objects – means to another’s ends – rather than also as subjects, that is, as ends in themselves. This thought was most forcefully expressed by Mary Parker Follett, as she struck an emancipatory note, “(P)urpose is involved in the process, not prior to process… the whole philosophy of cause-and-effect must be rewritten….Loyalty is awakened… by the very process which creates the group…Our task is not to ‘find’ causes to awaken our loyalty, but to live our lives fully and loyalty issues…Loyalty to a collective will which we have not created is slavery.” (The New State, 1923)

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You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat!

Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) sees the shark for the first time

Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie, Jaws, tells the story of a seaside town whose shores are terrorized by a killer shark. After several fatal attacks, the town sheriff, played by Roy Scheider, sets out to hunt the monster in a dilapidated fishing boat, together with the local salt and a nerdy marine biologist. On his first close encounter with the terrifying beast a stunned Scheider retreats back into the cabin, muttering to the old salt, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

I now use a clip from that movie to open my EMBA classes. I tell the participants that they are going to need a larger conceptual framework, a “bigger boat” to handle the colossal challenges that they and their people will face in the future. For there is a sense of a sea change in the complexity of the problems we are facing today, a feeling they have outgrown the ability of our concepts, methods and tools to handle them.

The Defects of (Anglo-American) Management Theory

In The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus (2011) John Micklethwait (editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News) and Adrian Wooldridge (Bagehot columnist for The Economist) 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

They described the root cause of the 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… and management practice has oscillated wildly between these two positions.” They went on to name the two schools as scientific management on the one hand and humanistic management on the other, concluding that, “This, in essence, is the debate between “hard” and “soft” management.”

Hard Management’s Dominance Challenged

Today the hegemony of the hard style is being challenged as never before by a changing context, which includes climate change, growing concerns about sustainability and a digital revolution in information and communications technology. Many have experienced firsthand how the management methods used to control growth and scale in the industrial era can be at odds with those needed to nurture the creativity and innovation required in the digital one.

“Soft” management methods and approaches like agile and design thinking are now all the rage. Consultants recommend managers adopt “new principles” and move from “command-and-control” to “communicate-and-collaborate”.  Scientific management, they say, is “dead”.

It would be a mistake, however, for managers to try and follow any simplistic “from…to” advice. For the “battleground” metaphor used by Micklethwait and Woolridge is an apt one, and this battle will not end anytime soon.

We Are The Battleground

It’s time to recognize that the “intellectual confusion” in management between the hard and the soft is not a “bug” in the theory, but a feature of the human condition. It’s time to accept that our fundamentally divided nature is the essence of our humanity and that it is the practical weaving together of seemingly irreconcilable opposites that is the very warp and woof of our existence. It is also the secret of our success.

The tensions spiral through our lives as individuals, families, communities, organizations and societies and throughout our history as a species. They have grown in complexity as our languages, cultures and institutions have grown more complex. Like the twin arms of a double helix, the dualities coil through philosophy in general and the history of management thought. Here they are familiar: exploitation and exploration, intended and emergent, calculation and judgement, individual and team, performance and learning, detachment and immersion, mechanical and organic, hierarchy and network, rational and emotional, plan and story, plumbing and poetry….

Both…And Not Either/Or

I think a “bigger boat”, a more comprehensive management framework, has to address this root dilemma, not statically by trying to replace the “hard” with the “soft”, but dynamically by embracing and containing the scientific within the humanistic. It’s a both…and predicament, not an either/or choice. This will require a new appreciation of context, especially the roles that space, time, scale and technology play in our ability to relate to each other and thrive together.

We know, for example, that when people are working together in groups less than 150 in size, management can be informal, face-to-face and “humanistic”.  Place the same people and thousands of others like them inside a giant, dangerous technology like an integrated steel mill and that is a recipe for disaster: a much more formal, “scientific” approach will be required. But large, complex organizations need not become oppressive prisons. There are examples of integrated steel mills, like the Canadian firm Dofasco, whose culture is a weave of the hard and the soft. They may never be as agile as a music-sharing service like Spotify but they aren’t competing with them and compared with other integrated steel mills they are light years ahead.

Understanding Relationships: Figure-and-Ground

The challenge for managers is how to frame the relationship between the hard and the soft in their own situations. It’s all very well to talk of “balance” and “weave” but those are outcomes. How does one produce them?  Here it’s helpful to think of a relationship that alternates between figure and ground. When the one is in the foreground the other is always behind it and their positions can flex to-and-fro, depending on the circumstances.

This is how to understand the concept of hierarchy-on-demand popularized by Gore & Associates, makers of Gore-Tex. They are a global $4 Billion business organized in clusters of facilities, each of which has about 150 people. This allows a unique humanistic approach to management, but it cannot handle everything. When teams reach an impasse managers invoke hierarchy-on-demand, bringing into the foreground a formal structure to make either/or decisions. Once that situation has passed, however, managers and hierarchy fade into the ground. Think of a fishing net that normally lies flat but can be lifted at a node at any time to form a temporary hierarchy and then let go to sink back into a network.

Every manager, then, must be alert to these fine-grained, constantly changing relationships between the hard and the soft and govern their behaviour accordingly. Hierarchy, calculation, command, and constraint all have a role to play in management, but they must be contained within an egalitarian philosophy that values above all else judgement, care and the cultivation of people.

Safely confined in a “bigger boat”, scientific management can be an excellent servant: unconstrained and on its own, it makes for an oppressive, even tyrannical master.

This article is one in the “shape the debate” series relating to the 13th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “The Human Imperative” on November 10 + 17 (digital) and 18 + 19 (in person), 2021.

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Democracy, Capitalism and Donald Trump: An Ecological Perspective Part I: Midnight Reckoning

Back in November 2016 I wrote a blog in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. As a Canadian I thought the Americans had had an awful choice to make but was just as surprised as many others were, when the man I wanted to lose beat the woman I wanted to lose.

An ecological lens suggests that it’s helpful to look at abstract systems like democracy and capitalism as dynamic ecological processes, rather than as static structures. That is, both capitalism and democracy are configurations of complex adaptive social, economic and political systems that have their own internal dynamics, analogous to those of complex adaptive ecologies, like forests and estuaries.

From this perspective successful social enterprises, both political and commercial 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 and routines that conserve their habits and protect their success but render them inward-looking and insensitive to the small-scale changes that presage trouble.  In economic organizations the result is decline and possibly disruption by smaller, faster enterprises wielding new technology. In political bodies the result is gridlock which, if it persists, can lead to political disruption and insurrection.

In their two perceptive books, The Broken Branch (2009) and It’s Even Worse Than It Looks (2011), political scientists, Thomas Mann and Norman Orenstein gave us a broad overview of how the gridlock emerged in the American Congress. Most importantly, they outlined the changes that led to the polarization of its members and the emergence of a quasi-parliamentary system, built upon opposition, in a constitutional republic where the separation of powers demands negotiation and compromise to get anything done.

Continue reading →

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