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 / Winter 2012 / Issue 69(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2012: Organizational Culture

Where Weisbord focuses on productivity, Bodell focuses on innovation. To create a culture that supports innovation, Bodell advocates giving people the opportunity to try new practices. She believes that if you get people doing things differently, their thinking — and culture change — will follow. Like Weisbord, Bodell disdains grandiosity and proclamations of large-scale transformation. Instead, she provides counterintuitive exercises aimed at getting people in organizations to address both short- and long-term problems in innovative ways.

The counterintuitive aspect is a key characteristic here, because a significant amount of organizational work in recent years has focused on getting people to describe a glowing future and then figure out how to attain it. In Bodell’s view, this approach can too easily lead to the kind of boilerplate and rote responses that actually stymie practical creativity. Likewise, she finds the “think outside the box” battle cry far too general to be useful. Instead, she advocates flipping the appreciative inquiry model on its head in order to foster the kind of provocative straight talk that gets people in teams thinking differently.

Exhibit A is an ingenious and well-developed exercise called “Kill the Company,” which asks participants to step into their competitors’ shoes and think up a detailed strategy aimed at driving their own company out of business. This is achieved by encouraging people to identify weaknesses in their company — or their business unit or division — and show how a savvy competitor could exploit them. According to Bodell, the most useful insights surface when participants consider specific scenarios. They should seek to answer questions such as, “What steps could a competitor take that would cut pricing by half on one of our main products?” “If we were hosting a public forum called ‘How Our Services Really Suck,’ what would be the main discussion topic?” “If someone were writing a tell-all book about our company, what painful secrets would they reveal?”

A second methodology, “Kill the Stupid Rules,” focuses attention on non-essentials that get in everybody’s way. Most stupid rules, Bodell notes, are enshrined policies that, over time, become “how we do things around here” — that is, part of the culture. Often they’re minor but familiar irritations: expense documentation requirements, IT departments’ blocking of access to useful websites, monthly operating reports that eat up significant amounts of time to prepare and review. When asked to identify stupid rules, Bodell finds that most of a company’s employees offer up the same suggestions, indicating that widespread frustration has become routine. She also observes that by agreeing to jettison rules widely perceived as idiotic, leaders can garner an almost unreasonable return in loyalty and respect.

A third method, “Provocative Inquiry,” recasts brainstorming to generate more pointed results. Bodell observes that most brainstorming fails to fulfill its promise because the questions are either too generic or framed in ways that elicit barriers to action rather than action. Ask people, “What do we want to look like in 10 years?” and you’re liable to get generalities in response: “We want to be number one in our sector.” But ask a group to name three microtrends that could transform their business and you’re likely to get a more robust and thoughtful discussion. For example: If passwords become obsolete, what will take their place, and how could our financial-services unit benefit from the shift?

Bodell urges organizations to focus on behaviors and parameters even when framing an organizational vision. Instead of urging people to take risks, for instance, define risk in concrete terms and set limits for it. Instead of offering up idealistic prose about the need for collaboration between units, create a “lazy intellectual property list” that helps people identify ideas from other units that they could help develop. Always, the emphasis is on specificity and framing provocative questions, the essential starting point for conversations that spur actionable change. And the writing in Bodell’s book models the practices she’s developed — it’s direct, clear, and refreshingly to the point.

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