Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Age of Heretics: a review

I'm writing about a new book today, but first I have a disclaimer: I know the author, Art Kleiner, because I was on an extended panel discussion he led on organizational heresy that resulted in a small section of The Dance of Change: The Challenges to Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations. He and I have kept in touch from time to time since then, and he provided me a review copy of this book.

There. That's out of the way.

Art Kleiner has published a second edition of The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management (J-B Warren Bennis Series). The executive summary: if you're in business, if you lead a business, if you consult to business, if you ever have thought of ways to make business work better, read this book!

Perhaps you read the first edition. So did I; I think I recommended it for the company library where I worked at the time and read it there. My recollection is that I liked that version, but I like this version so much more. Perhaps it's his new version; perhaps it's my added experience since I read that first edition (I no longer have easy access to check). Even if you read the first edition, read this one, too.

A heretic, in Art's view, is someone who simultaneously holds great loyalty to the organization to which they belong and a vision of a new truth the organization has yet to see. He has written about the evolution of organizational heresy by way of mini-biographies of archetypal heretics. There are too many for me to summarize, so let me simply refer to one as a way to whet your interest and to indicate what I think of the book.

I first discovered Chris Argyris's action science around 1992, about the time I began work with a group that eventually turned into a true high-performing work team. I had read The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization
and discovered reference to Argyris's work. As is often my custom when I read of new ideas, I like to find the original to learn more (perhaps I owe that to Dr. Malcolm R. MacPhail of Rice University, who would give extra credit in quantum mechanics for our reading related, primary research in its original language and writing summaries).

I picked up one of Argyris's books, probably about 400 pages long, and began to read. By the time I had read 50 pages, I had determined both that it was one of the most important books I had ever read and that I didn't have a clue how to apply its ideas. I kept reading.

At the same time, I was working with—managing—a team that had serious intra-group communications difficulties. I'd practice what I was discovering in meetings I held with them. Then I would come back to the book and try to discover where I had gone wrong. After a year or two of weekly meetings as experimental labs and after reading perhaps seven, eight, or more of Argyris's books, I discovered that the application of action science can facilitate breakthrough improvements in group productivity. I determined that action science has certain attributes:

  • Action science requires great skills at discernment to see important incongruities in words that can help us improve our abilities to hold productive discussions in the presence of disagreements and even conflict. It also offers approaches to help us build our capabilities in discernment.
  • Action science is a revolutionary approach that upends normal work cultures and offers the promise of real, revolutionary gains in productivity.
  • There's an ethical principle that permeates action science. It's vitally important for each of us to find it and internalize what it means to us. That was, I think, central to my eventual understanding and use of action science.

Action science was perhaps the hardest material I've ever learned (even harder than some of the technical material I learned as an engineer). I think it was only the long, intense action research approach of reading, studying, reflecting, and doing (and often failing) that enabled me to comprehend and internalize it without a mentor or teacher.

Most books and articles I've read about action science (Bob Dick's and Tim Dalmau's Values in Action is a notable exception) attempt to make action science approachable, incremental, and easy to do. As important as some of those books are, I've come to the conclusion that those who see action science as anything but earthshakingly revolutionary and demanding of great personal courage and discernment have missed (or are hiding) the point.

Why this discussion? Because Art is the first writer I've seen who conveys that spirit in his description. He, like no other I've read, made that essence come alive. While you won't learn how to practice action science in the pages he devotes to Argyris's work, you may come away with a better impression of what it can do for you and for groups with which you work. Reading his words in conjunction with other material on action science may help you develop a deeper understanding and better practice of the approach.

Art did much the same for each of the heretics and their heresies throughout The Age of Heretics. He neither shied away from their warts nor downplayed the essence of their contributions. That has helped me put many past business and management developments into context, and that is why I recommend it so highly to you.

Now go read it!

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Blogger Bill Harris said...

If you want to learn more about the project I described, see "Emphasis on Business, Technology, and People Cuts Turnaround Time at Hewlett-Packard's Lake Stevens Division," National Productivity Review, Winter 1998-99.

22 October, 2008 22:08  
Blogger inwowgold said...

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13 February, 2009 00:30  

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