Book review: The soul at work

Complexity science is appearing more and more often in business literature (and just about everywhere else). This book with the subtitle “unleashing the power of complexity science for business success” shows a better way to manage organizations than the old command-and-control way, and describes some of the tools needed to get there. It helped put me on to the “joy at work” project.

The book is divided into three main parts. There’s an introduction to complexity science, a number of case stories from companies that successfully applied it, and lastly a compendium of recommendations for the leader who wants to try it.

All the information in the book is solid, well written and easily readable. My favourite part is the case stories. These stories are rousing descriptions of how different organizations transformed told by the people involved. These organizations were transformed from a classical command-and-control structure to something else. The organizations are not identical afterwards, far from it, but introducing elements from complexity science seems to have resulted in many of the same benefits. People trust each other. They are allowed to make mistakes. They have more fun. And they consistently outperform themselves from before the change.

All the stories also tell you the same thing about the transformation process: It’s scary! Don’t expect the transformation of your organization to be painless. Don’t expect it to please everybody. Don’t expect results quickly. In fact, you can be sure of the opposite. Which is why you need to believe that what your doing is right. You need to believe that command-and-control is not the best way to manage an organization, and that it is certainly not the best way to engage people souls in their work.

My favourite story is of Dick Knowles who became the CEO of one of DuPonts chemical plants in West Virginia in 1987. When he took over, he “was by habit a command-and-control leader… You had to be rough… You often shouted at people, used bad language, and sometimes demeaned those below you.” The plant in West Virginia was one of DuPonts worst performing, both in terms of profits and in terms of injury rates and pollution. The story shows how Knowles transformed himself and the plant by adopting a totally different style of leadership and spreading this throughout the plant. The results: Injury rates went down by 95%. Environmental emissions went down 87%. Plant up-time increased from 65% to 95%. Productivity increased by 45%. Earnings per employee tripled. Also, the plant went from being feared by the local community (because of the risk of pollution or industrial accidents), to being a good, trusted neighbour.

The only thing that I feel is missing from this book, is an increased focus on the organizational layers below top management. All the case stories are of the CEO introducing new principles and letting them spread through the organization. Let’s say you’re not top management, but you still want to introduce some of these changes. What tools will you use? How will you spread these values UP the hierarchy? These are some of the issues we will adress in project Joy at Work.

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