As a learning organisation, we put great store in books. These are thinking tools, really, by the innovators who have influenced our own approach to creating ‘innovations in productivity’.
Some are classics while others are newer additions to our library. Even the older books—perhaps especially those—contain ideas that are more important than ever.
‘The Goal’ by Eli Goldratt — The book that launched the Theory of Constraints (TOC) takes the form of a novel (written with Jeff Cox) about a manager’s quest to save his manufacturing plant and his marriage. Guided by his former physics teacher—clearly Goldratt’s avatar—Alex Rogo learns how to see the world differently. Thirty years later, the principles are no less powerful. TOC is a beautifully elegant system based on falsifiable hypothesis. It’s the method at the heart of Ensemble’s innovations in resourcing and operations.
The late Goldratt was an iconoclast who could rub people the wrong way. But he also had a sly humour and the chutzpah to follow his own path. His ideas deserve widespread attention. This ‘business novel’ lays them out in a way that seems like common sense. But, as Goldratt himself noted, common sense is so rarely common practice. He adapted the principles from the original production environment to other domains in later books, such as ‘Critical Chain’ which redefines project management.
‘The Logical Thinking Process’ by H. William Dettmer — Subtitled ‘A Systems Approach to Complex Problem Solving’, Bill Dettmer’s book develops Goldratt’s ideas and brings clarity and insight to the key questions: ‘What to change? What to change to? And how to change?’ Not a beach-read by any means, but eye-opening in how to identify and address the real challenges you’re facing. Root causes, effects, undesirable consequences—all reveal themselves through ‘logic trees’ that demand rigour and weed out sloppy thinking.
His Goal Tree is especially useful in workshops. With the whole team in the room, the ‘owners of the system’ collaborate on a shared vision that defines the system’s goal. Structuring sessions using these trees, we’ve had participants insist they’ve made more progress in four hours than the previous four months. Powerful stuff.
‘The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization’ by Peter Senge — Talking of shared vision, that’s one of the disciplines highlighted in this seminal work by the celebrated MIT Sloan professor. The others are ‘personal mastery’, ‘mental models’, ‘team learning’, and ‘systems thinking’—the fifth discipline that brings the others together.
If you believe, as we do, that the rate at which innovation flows through an organisation is determined by the rate at which people within the organisation learn, you see that these ideas cut much deeper than the ‘soft’ cultural stuff. They are real disciplines—skills that can be improved with practice—and fundamental to getting new ideas accepted. In our own work, we’ve found Senge’s thinking indispensable in successfully adopting Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints.
‘Organizational Culture and Leadership’ by Edgar Schein — Another distinguished MIT Sloan professor, now retired, Schein spent years analysing cultures in large organisations, investigating how assumptions, values and artefacts (language, manner of address, clothing, observable behaviour) affect ways of working, particularly in sub-cultures. Would two engineers—say one Japanese, one French—have more in common in their approach to work than an engineer and a doctor who are both Japanese? Schein’s research is fascinating and indicates you can’t impose culture. As he writes, ‘If [leaders] do not become conscious of the cultures in which they are embedded, those cultures will manage them.’
This is why, in our own work, we aim to solve our client’s immediate problem. If the fix works, it will gradually become ‘the way we do things around here’. Schein also came up with the idea of the Anxiety of Learning (‘I don’t want to look foolish or admit I don’t know everything’) versus the Anxiety of Survival (‘I might be fired if I don’t master this’). To achieve results, then, you can ramp up the fear of consequences or decrease the fear of failure. This is one reason our own workshops introduce elements of play and humour to create a safe environment where people can try new things and feel they can fail.
‘Requisite Organization’ by Elliott Jaques — The psychoanalyst who coined the term ‘midlife crisis’ was also a successful management consultant. As a social scientist, Dr Elliott Jaques (pronounced ‘Jakes’) studied hierarchies in organisations and developed the idea of ‘levels of work’, in which tasks should match people’s cognitive ability and ‘timeframe’. So while factory-floor workers may only think about this week’s targets, and their supervisor about this month’s, the manager focuses on the quarter or the year. Presidents (both of companies and countries) should cast their minds and intentions out ten years or more.
Moreover, when your work stretches beyond your cognitive ability, it’s stressful; whereas unchallenging work leads to boredom and disengagement. The sweet spot leads to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (another favourite) terms a state of ‘flow’. Jaques’s work, which he called Stratifies Systems Theory, has been misrepresented in some circles as a way of keeping people in their place—and justifying high executive pay. In fact, Jaques was a humanist who wanted everyone to be more engaged and rewarded in the workplace. Developing hierarchies that respect people’s capabilities can be more fulfilling for the individual, while saving the organisation from the Peter Principle whereby ‘managers rise to the level of their incompetence’.
‘Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges’ by Otto Scharmer — The third thinker in our MIT triumvirate—and a generation younger than Edgar Schein—Scharmer sees his mission as changing not only the way we work but how society can realise its potential by ‘tapping our collective capacity’ to solve the challenges of our era—climate change, hunger, poverty, violence, terrorism—and set up strong foundations for social, economic, ecological and spiritual wellbeing. As befits that mission, Theory U is not a prescriptive one-man venture, but an invitation to build a community, suspend our judgement and think about how we interact at all levels. The ‘U’ itself represents a journey that starts with listening and observing, goes down to a place of self-reflection and emerges again with the decisiveness and courage to act and change.
I’ve travelled to the US to meet Scharmer and take part in his seminars. His approach has informed our own ‘U Journey’, undertaken with clients on transformation projects. It involves bringing a higher quality of attention and intention to every situation. When you start to recognise the habits of attention present in your own business culture, you can slowly start to change them together and achieve dramatically different outcomes. The book itself is perhaps overloaded with coinages such as ‘presencing’ (a portmanteau of ‘presence’ and ‘sensing’) and ‘field structures of attention’. But given what he’s trying to do, it’s hard to co-opt existing language to express his meaning. Recommended for bold leaders who seek to liberate their teams from politics and truly collaborate on their own future.
‘Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World’ by General Stanley McChrystal — Military metaphors have long inspired management theory (or infected management jargon, depending on your viewpoint). Markets are ‘arenas’ in which ‘companies capture market share’ or ‘outflank the competition’ to ‘dominate their industry’. One of our own directors is a former special forces officer, so we’ve been known to talk about ‘boots on the ground’, too. Usually, though, these phrases are pasted in without real thought in the hope of making strategy or marketing sound more exciting. So it’s rare when a real general can bring his genuinely battle-tested lessons to the corporate world.
McChrystal commanded the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq in 2003. To take on Al Qaeda, he and his colleagues discarded the conventional wisdom of unconventional warfare. They broke down silos, took best-practice tactics from small teams and applied them to a networked organisation using technology with the power to bring disparate groups together as one ‘team of teams’. Armed (ahem) with this experience, he asks, ‘What if you could combine the adaptability, agility, and cohesion of a small team with the power and resources of a giant organization?’ Applied correctly, his answers could help many a large company change up their battle plans, go on the offensive and defend themselves from insurgent startups (…whoops, there we go again).
‘The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution’ by Walter Isaacson — Best known for his biographies of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Henry Kissinger, Isaacson takes a different tack here assembling a whole cast of characters to tell the compelling story of the digital revolution.
Going right back to mathematician Ada Lovelace, the poet Lord Byron’s only legitimate child, and her ‘analytical engine’, his narrative reveals how she and Charles Babbage, ‘the father of computers’, kickstarted the revolution that led to Alan Turing and Bletchley Park, Bell Labs, Gates, Wozniak, Jobs, Tim Berners-Lee, Larry Page and beyond. This is a fascinating read, beautifully written, that offers some great insights into how innovation really comes about. Incidentally, Isaacson gave McChrystal a glowing blurb on the ‘Team of Teams’ book jacket.
‘The Wright Brothers’ by David McCullough — This is another page-turner from the eminence grise of American historians. McCullough brings the two brothers to life: Wilbur, the visionary genius and Orville, the mechanical savant. He vividly renders their epic adventure to send heavier-than-air machines into the skies; you can sense their excitement and frustration at every turn. It all happened just over a century ago, when it was still common enough to grow up without electricity or running water, as they did. But they had books and parents who instilled in them a lifelong love of learning.
Among many other interesting facts, we learn that the only media to report on the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk was a beekeeper’s journal, as no other newsmen took the brothers seriously. After all, the US Government had its best people on the same problem. And they couldn’t make it work. How could two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, succeed? Even when the Government was offered first dibs on this new technology, they turned it down. They simply didn’t believe that something heavier than air could fly under its own power. Only once the French had spent money with these pioneering aviators did the US wake up to the enormity of this new possibility. And the Wright boys did it all on a shoestring budget using their own money. The book is also a paean to brotherhood, self-belief and the need for collaboration, even in a team of only two. For anyone seeking to make a difference in the world—often fighting against an indifferent world—this is inspiring stuff.
‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’ by Clayton Christensen — The author is responsible for unleashing the phrase ‘disruptive innovation’ into thousands of academic articles, MBA theses and business books. (And, yes, we use the term ourselves.) It all started with an article in the Harvard Business Review about ‘disruptive technologies’ before being expanded into this blockbuster business book in 1997 (actually ‘disruptive innovation’ appeared only with the sequel, ‘The Innovator’s Solution’).
The dilemma itself is essentially how successful companies fall victim to their own success. They start with an innovation that leads to a large customer base. Eventually, value creation hits diminishing returns, while the next innovation is not yet mature enough for the demands of existing customers. The original innovator fails to invest enough resources in the new approach, while the new kids on the block (often started by frustrated employees of the original company) find their niche before expanding to steal the original customer base. How to pivot your resources, or judge which projects in your portfolio deserve more attention? That’s something Ensemble can help with.
Next on my own list is Christensen’s latest, ‘Competing Against Luck: the Story of Innovation and Customer Choice’. I hope you find stimulation and enjoyment in some of these books, as we have at Ensemble. Of course, there are many more. But this is what I consider our core collection. I’d be delighted to hear about books that have changed the way you think.
We have multiple copies of all these books in our own library and you’re welcome to borrow them. Why not drop by for a coffee and a chat and pick up a title or two?
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