Marvin R. Weisbord
Productive Workplaces: Dignity, Meaning, and Community in the 21st Century: 25th Anniversary Edition
Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution
Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power Their Organizations
(Harvard Business Review Press, 2012)
The intense focus on corporate change during the last decade has given us a greater appreciation of the role that culture plays in organizations. Change efforts can succeed only if the culture is engaged; getting the strategy and other formal elements right is never enough. And culture is vested in people — how they work, what they believe, how they behave and communicate, and what they ask of themselves. It’s the bedrock reality of an organization, its true ground. When culture is harnessed, extraordinary transformations can occur.
Witness the experience of Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd. (HPCL), as described by Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind in Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversion to Power Their Organizations. As part of a strategic initiative aimed at making the huge, partially state-owned, heavily unionized company more innovative and productive, its leaders sent cross-functional teams drawn from the ranks of young employees into remote regions of India to conduct field research and “live where the market was, for about two or three weeks.”
The resulting exchanges yielded critical insights into how HPCL could improve its retail performance in rural areas, for example, by building small, inexpensive fueling stations along secondary roads. This innovation not only improved the company’s performance and gave it access to enormous untapped markets, but also spurred engagement among the young employees. Seeing their ideas put into action on a massive scale gave them a sense of ownership in their company. Employee buy-in, bolstered by ongoing efforts intended to create a coherent organizational vision and culture, has proved invaluable to the company. For example, when a general strike was called throughout the Indian energy sector, HPCL was the only state-owned company that continued to operate, because its managers and staff felt too responsible for its welfare to walk out.
Many of this year’s business books recognize culture’s role as the essential driver of effective change. But frequently their suggestions for engaging the levers of culture are limited to exhortation: Be more open! Behave less hierarchically! Become a change agent! By contrast, the three books reviewed here offer highly specific ways of engaging culture to build more effective, productive, and innovative organizations.
Productive Workplaces: Dignity, Meaning, and Community in the 21st Century: 25th Anniversary Edition (originally published in 1987 as Productive Workplaces: Organizing and Managing for Dignity, Meaning, and Community) draws on Marvin R. Weisbord’s dual perspectives as a thoughtful and inquiring business manager and an indefatigable student of management practice. The book’s reissue, updated and expanded, offers nothing less than a history of how cultural innovations have pushed organizations to become more productive over the last century and a half.
Inheriting a position in his family’s printing business in the late 1950s, Weisbord quite naturally adopted the heroic, top-down style of leading that was then so prevalent as to be almost unquestioned. In essence, he made decisions and gave orders that he expected the frontline people in his company to carry out, while he also tried to define the processes and methods they should use. But a few sobering experiences soon convinced him that the people he was ordering around knew a lot more about their jobs than he did. What they really needed from the boss was freedom and support so they could make the best use of their skills.