Book review: All hat and no cattle

This book is the story of Chris Turner, and her work to bring change, learning and empowerment into Xerox. It’s a highly entertaining book, right from this first line: “My family never did hold much with organized religion. The fact is, we ended up in Texas because my great-grandfather roughed up a priest in Arkansas. Seems the good father didn’t want to bury a nonbaptized child the Catholic cemetery, and my great-granddaddy took offense at such malarkey… Given this background you’ll understand how I came by my habits of challenging rules and dogma. Questioning the status quo is something I have done all my life.”

And reading these “tales of a corporate outlaw” you’re left with little doubt that the status quo needs to be questioned. And here’s a tip: When you read the book, imagine it in a thick southern drawl – that makes it even better.

The book is full of wonderful stories, that demonstrate how irrational and silly many business practices today have become, but also show that change is possible. You don’t have to sit on your hands complaining, it’s possible to make a positive difference even in very large, static and bureaucratic organizations.

One of the points that really made a difference for me, is when Turner talks about learning. Many people look upon learning as something you can package, and transfer from one person to another, but the fact is, that only about 15% of the population learn in that way. Most people learn by experience. Therefore, when she was creating projects to enhance cooperation and learning at Xerox, she didn’t create long slidehows about why learning and cooperation is good. Instead her team created somehting called “camp lur’ning”, where Xerox employees participated over several days, and where they automatically cooperated and learned. The main point being, that if you want to teach a behaviour, place people in a situation where they can exhibit that behaviour.

As an example, the first day of camp lur’ning was deliberatly chaotic, forcing particpants to self-organize around a number of tasks – allowing them to learn and cooperate on the spot, and to experience the benefits of it first hand. Turner argues, that most Powerpoint slide shows are created for the benefit of the speaker, not the participants, and that the “Tell them and they will know” idea is fundamentally wrong. Yaaaaaaay!

One of Turners advantages seems to be, that she was never afraid of the organizations’ top dogs. In one story, she convinces the president Norm Rickard to drop a planned speech announcing a new organizational structure by telling him “You know I love you Norm, and I need to tell you something. You’ll never be a great speaker, but you are a terrific storyteller. Why don’t you just sit on a stool and tell stories. Bag the speech.” He agreed, it went great, and he later thanked Turner for the advice.

In that respect, Turner reminds me of Gordon Mackenzie who worked 20 years for Hallmark, assuming the role of “Corporate fool” and wrote a book about it called “orbiting the giant hairball“. It seems to me a short step from Corporate Fool to Corporate Outlaw.

This book is a wonderful, easy read with lots of deep learning about how organizations become frozen and dead, and how change can be brought about anyway, even in the face of little corporate support, no money, silly bureaucracy and widespread hopelessness.

And in case you’re wondering, “all hat and no cattle”, is a Texan expression for anything that favours style over content, for instance something that looks good on paper, but doesn’t work in real life or a person who doesn’t walk the talk.

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