Leading Outside the Lines: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: July 13th, 2011 by bobmorris

Leading Outside the Lines: How to Mobilize the (in)Formal Organization, Energize Your Team, and Get Better Results
Jon R. Katzenbach and Zia Khan
Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint (2010)

Animal metaphors remain popular among authors of business books. Credit Jon Katzenbach and Zia Khan with taking full advantage of a term they first encountered during a meeting with Mark D. Wallace, then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations during the (George H.W.) Bush administration. “Fast zebras was one of Wallace’s favorite metaphors for those people who have the ability to absorb information and adapt to sudden challenges capably and quickly…The fast zebra is, in essence, a person who knows how to draw on both the formal and informal organizations with equal facility.”

Especially now during this severe economic depression/recession/whatever, I wholly agree with Katzenbach and Khan that “fast zebras can help the stiff joints of overly formal organizations move smoothly [and expeditiously] again. They help the formal organizations get unstuck when surprises come its way, or when it’s time to head in a new direction. They have the ability to understand how the organization works, and the street smarts to figure out how to get around stubborn obstacles. They draw on values and personal relationships to help people make choices that align with overall strategy and get around misguided policy. They draw on networks to form teams that collaborate on problems not owned by any formal structure. They tap into different sources of pride to motivate the behaviors ignored by formal reward systems.”

Moreover, “it can be lonely to be the only fast zebra at the watering hole. So wise leaders identify their fast zebras and help create conditions that will attract more of their kind. By creating a herd, leaders can accelerate more quickly and on a broader scale than any one fast zebra could on its own.” So this book is about how and why formal managers should make purposeful use of informal networks to achieve a goal or bring about a change while realizing that informal initiatives alone are insufficient to effective response to either a crisis or an opportunity. Formal and informal management of both formal and informal initiatives are needed to achieve the given strategic objectives. The “fast zebras” need to be released from arbitrary and unnecessary constraints so that organizations can benefit from their unique and invaluable ability to “navigate treacherous waters of complexity,” both internally and externally, as well as the wisdom to cultivate the informal relationships that will guide them to perform well. What is more important, however, is that even though the instinctive fast zebras are rare, most people in most organizations have the potential to improve those skills.”

Those who read this book are urged to retain and strengthen their formal management approaches – but realize their limitations; to avoid viewing the informal organization as subordinate, inferior, and “unruly chaos” because it can be supervised and energized to accelerate high-impact results and achieve strategic imperatives; and meanwhile, to refuse to manage the informal with the techniques that work for the formal because that “will only make things worse.”

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