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Published: November 27, 2012
 / Winter 2012 / Issue 69

 
 

Best Business Books 2012: Organizational Culture

This insight prompted Weisbord to undertake a personal journey to discover how to help people create the conditions under which they could be most effective rather than imposing standards or methods on them. He read widely and made a point of spending time with some of the great pioneers of participative management, collaborative learning, and systems thinking: Kurt Lewin, Douglas McGregor, Eric Trist, Fred Emery, and Warren Bennis. He turned his own company into a learning lab where he put to work the ideas he was discovering, eventually becoming a consultant and writing about what he had learned.

The result was the first edition of Productive Workplaces, a highly personal, sometimes idiosyncratic account of Weisbord’s quest to become a better leader, and a wise and timeless contribution to the literature of work that a quarter-century later is the year’s best business book on organizational culture. In the new edition, Weisbord recasts some of his stories from management history, describes his recent work with collaborative teaming, and offers both updated and new cases.

The new chapter on “Ten Management Myths” alone, in which the author summarizes five decades of experience, makes this edition worth reading. One myth is the belief that large-scale interventions and Day One transformations have the capacity to change an organization’s culture. But Weisbord’s experience has convinced him that organizations actually change only one small step at a time. “If you seek a new ‘culture,’” he advises, “make every meeting congruent with the culture you seek.” This means focusing on what is happening in the here and now. Creating real change means “giving these people, in this room, at this moment, opportunities they never had before.” Culture exists and is manifest in day-to-day business.

Several of Weisbord’s myths are based on the premise that leaders make primarily rational decisions. He’s skeptical of executives who justify every action as dictated by profit, believing that their real bottom line is more often the desire to maintain and expand their power. He similarly questions the routine use of layoffs, which he describes as “trading skills, experience, future capability, and competitive advantage for short-term cash.” It’s not that layoffs are necessarily wrong, but that they have become a habit in many organizations, a response embedded in and reinforced by the culture. Weisbord encourages cultures that take a case-by-case approach, honoring Mary Parker Follett’s “law of the situation,” which not surprisingly focuses on what’s happening here and now.

Weisbord sees an inherent tension between top-down management and participative cultures. He traces this dynamic back to Frederick Taylor, who was both an efficiency engineer and a fierce advocate of workplace democracy. Taylor’s struggle to integrate his holistic and systemic instincts with his desire to quantify and measure performance created an internal dialogue that Weisbord believes has shaped organizational cultures ever since. He discerns a similar dialogue at work in Douglas McGregor’s highly influential Theory X (top-down control) and Theory Y (people can be trusted to do their work), viewing these two organizational types not as opposing ideologies but as polarities that express the full spectrum of an organizational culture that is ultimately rooted in the complexity of human nature.

Weisbord’s narrative voice in Productive Workplaces — which is both a history of organizational management and a personal story — is direct and free from cant, skeptical of big claims and sweeping changes. The author is a passionate incrementalist whose words demonstrate the humanity at the heart of his enterprise. The reissue of his classic book is cause for celebration.

A Killer Culture

In Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution, Lisa Bodell, founder of an innovation research and training firm, offers up a whole menu of tools aimed at freeing people’s capacity for innovation. Her focus is not on organizational realignment, but rather on the daily practices that can get people thinking, talking, and acting in new ways — culture change at its most granular.

 
 
 
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