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Posted by on Dec 22, 2011

A Must-Read Book on Work and Organizations

I have never recommended a book in a blog posting before, but that’s about to change, and for a very good reason.

Sometimes in a good life, you come across a theory, model, idea, course, book or conversation that fundamentally changes the way you see the world. You may have a sense that the scales have fallen from your eyes, that you understand reality in an entirely new and profoundly more accurate and powerful way, that this new way of thinking explains a whole lot more than anything else to-date. And you may feel that knowing what you now know, that there’s no turning back. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, the secret is out, and you are changed.

This is Mark Addleson’s new book, Beyond Management: Taking Charge at Work.

I have read who knows how many books on organizations, management and leadership, and many more articles. This book is different, and it is different in a way that is exciting, disturbing and profound. It lays out what we need to understand about organizations if we are to move beyond a tired, exhausted, dysfunctional and counter-productive mental model of what work is.

Full disclosure: I had the privilege to sit in Mark’s class at George Mason University a few years ago when he laid out over several months, point to point, his argument on what is happening in organizations, and what needs to be done. I have to tell you that due to the design of the Master’s program I was in, these lectures were often on Friday night until 10:00 PM. If you’re like most people, there are many things you can think of that you would rather be doing on a Friday night than listening to a lecture on organizations and work. And I have to tell you I often left the lecture hall electrified by the power of Mark’s discoveries and explanation.

So, what’s the ”juice?” What is Mark saying, and why is it so important? Here we go:

• Work has shifted from factories to knowledge work. Instead of a steady, reliable production line, we have today problem-solving, change, ambiguity, conflict, alignment of interests, creativity, collaboration, confusion, clarity, evolving and most fundamentally, trying to make sense of the world and our place in it. “What should we do now? What is the best idea? How can we position ourselves to do something great?” These are the questions of knowledge work.

• Management models are still pretty much what they were for the factory. Hierarchy, a culture of “telling” rather than “asking,” defining outcomes without employee input, and high control are all hallmarks of the factory. They also demotivate virtually all employees.

• As a knowledge worker, you already understand the profound difference between work you do when you are motivated – “switched on” – and demotivated –“phoning it in,” or “going through the motions.” Because your real value is a function of what comes out of your brain, the state in which you work really, really matters. High motivation, excitement, energy and creativity creates beautiful work products. (Knowledge work is much more art than science. Even scientists doing their best work talk about being immersed in the flow of the activity, the genius of a new idea, or the elegance of a theory. It is anything but rote production work.)

• You can’t really “manage” or command creativity. You can’t schedule a meeting at which people will generate insights at 3:45 on a Thursday. You can only foster it and create conditions in which it is most likely to happen – support, encouragement, good working arrangements, and recognition, for example. Already, we see the logical limits of command and control.

• A key part of Mark’s book is to differentiate from the practice of work and “the view from the top.” Being inside the work is to be engaged in all those questions listed above. Trying to understand the client’s perspective, figuring out how to organize around a seemingly impossible request, asking a colleague for an idea on how to change something in the work, communicating, collaborating and generating ideas. Mark’s contention is that most of this is invisible to those running organizations. Instead, they look at what he calls the “D’s.” These include such things as data, dollars, deliverables, and directives. These are all abstracted, reified objects – they are not the work itself. The work itself happens on the telephone when hearing about a surprise in a project, when conflict erupts, when it becomes clear people had really different ideas, when you create information in a way that allows a client to make a good decision. The view from the top regards these often as interruptions to the real work – remember, it is steeped in a production mentality. The deep fantasy is that everything runs like a clock, with no time-outs for the real stuff of knowledge work. (I have heard it said before: “What is work besides solving problems?”) If you think about the tension between a musician and his or her record company, you start to get a glimpse into this divide. The record company would love a predictable schedule of releases that sell millions. The artist is trying to get “out there” what is “in here.” This is creativity, imagination, beauty. It’s not so schedulable. Organizations are only starting to begin to grasp what this all means. It will require a new business model.

• The smartest, most advanced companies already understand this changing paradigm, and are acting on it. Google, Pixar, Harley-Davidson, Zappos and many other much smaller companies seem to be “getting” what work today really means. Taking much more a whole systems view (including customers, communities and other stakeholders), they are rethinking what happens in work, and what it means for leadership. Most others are still fighting last year’s war with a production and factory mental model. Input, throughput, output.

At the risk of doing it injustice, I will say this is a sinfully abbreviated summary of just some of Mark’s key points. If any of the points above resonate, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of the book.

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