Essential Reading for Management Revolutionaries

Posted by Gary Hamel on December 2, 2008

I hate reading business books. Most are tedious DIY guides that tell you how to keep your customers happy, grow the top line, be a better leader, motivate your employees, find a new strategy, or manage change. Nothing wrong with this if your goal is to wring another few drops of performance out of your overly bureaucratized organization or cure your chronic insomnia. If, on the other hand, you want to build a genuine performance advantage, you’ll need to read stuff that’s a lot more radical; books that will hammer away at the carapace of your unshakeable beliefs, that are filled with ideas your competitors would regard as irrelevant or utopian.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Management 1.0 practices found in most companies strangle innovation, frustrate collaboration, curtail ambition, undermine loyalty, and stymie adaptation. That’s why I’ve spent the last several years struggling to free myself from the straitjacket of management orthodoxy.

In my search for the outlines of Management 2.0 (a journey summarized in my most recent book, “The Future of Management”), I drew on the wisdom of some adventuresome scouts who’ve already been out reconnoitering the contours of a post-managerial world.

Believe me: over the next decade we will witness a management revolution that is no less momentous than the one that spawned the modern economy. If you’re hoping to be in the vanguard, here’s some essential reading that will get you out in front.

“Creative Experience,” Mary Parker Follett, 1924.

No typo on the date. Mary Follett worked as a community organizer in Boston in the early 1900s. She developed a model of “servant leadership” long before this term was fashionable. The world’s most prescient management thinker, her advice is more timely than ever before.

Quote to savor: “The best leader knows how to make his followers actually feel power themselves, not merely acknowledge his power.”

“Out of Control,” by Kevin Kelly, 1994.

Kevin Kelly, a founder of Wired magazine, has the best over the horizon radar of anyone I know. His book, Out of Control, is a multi-faceted argument for the power of biological principles in enabling human collaboration. Kevin has seen the organization of the future and it looks like a beehive: emergent, distributed, organic and adaptive. If you don’t believe there’s a viable alternative to top-down hierarchies, read this book.

Quote to savor: “The challenge is simply stated: Extend the company’s internal network outward to include all those with whom the company interacts in the marketplace. Spin a grand web to include employees, suppliers, regulators and customers; they all become part of your company’s collective being. They are the company.”

“The Age of Heretics,” by Art Kleiner, 1996.

If we’re close to a tipping point in the evolution of human organization, it is thanks in large part to the pioneering efforts of management heretics like Douglas McGregor, Kurt Lewin, Chris Argyris, and Warren Bennis. Working in the middle of the last century, these individuals devoted their lives to humanizing the workplace. They were inventors, not arm-chair theorists, and they put their ideas to work in organizations like Shell, Procter & Gamble, and IBM. Twenty-first century management innovators have much to learn from the successes and failures of these path breakers.

Quote to savor: “Despite all [the] frustrations, it is better to be a heretic than to have one’s soul wither through the denial of a truth.”

“Manufacturing the Employee,” Roy Jacques, 1996.

How did those early industrialists turn independent and bloody-minded farmers, laborers and craftsmen into order-taking, forelock-tugging employees? How did people become “human resources,” the flesh-and-blood equivalents of steel and cash? And how did the distinction between “managers” and “employees” become so deeply engrained within our organizations? Roy Jacques answers these questions and in doing so reminds us that our management beliefs are not eternal truths but elements of a recently constructed paradigm—one that will trap us if we fail to challenge the foundational assumptions upon which it was built.

Quote to savor: “During times of transformational change, … not only do new problems arise; old ways of understanding problems become problems themselves.

“Competing on the Edge,” Shona L. Brown and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, 1998.

This book is a six-lane highway that bridges Kelly’s biological metaphors with the hard work of running a company in an age of “intense, high-velocity change.” The authors argue that every company must become as good at changing as it is at executing. The goal—a company that is carefully balanced between structure and chaos, exploitation and experimentation, planning and improvisation.

Quote to savor: “Competing on the edge is about surprise. It is not about planning an approach and knowing how it will unfold. The future is too uncertain for such pin-point accuracy. It is more about making some moves, observing what happens, and continuing with the ones that seem to work. Although the past and future matter, the focus of attention is today.”

“The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” Eric S. Raymond, 1999.

A cathedral is designed by a visionary architect, and once built, is static and unchanging. A bazaar, by contrast, is a semi-chaotic assembly of independent agents who come together to trade. It is loosely designed and inherently flexible. In Raymond’s analogy, the open source movement is a bazaar and most businesses are cathedrals. This highly readable book outlines the critical design rules of successful open source projects: broad access to innovation tools, a meritocracy of ideas, competition for reputational capital, transparent peer review, and self-selection of key tasks—principles that make rigidly constructed corporate cathedrals become energetic and dynamic bazaars.

Quote to savor: “Yes, the success of open source does call into some question the utility of command-and-control systems, of secrecy, of centralization, and of certain kinds of intellectual property. It would be disingenuous not to admit that it suggests (or at least harmonizes with) a broadly libertarian view of the proper relationship between individuals and institutions.”

Next week: The second half of our Management 2.0 booklist.

Is it possible to achieve coordination without centralization? To have leadership without hierarchy? To be specialized without being balkanized? To do things at scale without turning employees into drones? To be highly efficient without becoming inflexible? To organize without organizations and manage without managers? Can we reap the benefits of industrial-age organizations without incurring the costs? In other words, is there an organizational equivalent to seedless grapes, non-fat ice cream and low-carb beer? These are the big questions that will lead us towards Management 2.0—and these books are the brightest beacons lighting the way.

Maybe you’ve read something that has inspired you to look beyond management-as-usual. If so, please let me know and send me a short review. I’ll add it to our Management 2.0 booklist.

Readers, what’s the most provocative business book you’ve read?



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