The Fall of the Alphas: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: October 8th, 2013 by bobmorris

Fall:AlphasThe Fall of the Alphas: The New Beta Way to Connect, Collaborate, Influence—and Lead
Dana Ardi
St. Martin’s Press (2013)

This is another “time to be born, and a time to die; A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.” Ecclesiastes

As Dana Ardi explains, “Today’s American corporate world is a tale of two cultures. One, more traditional and common, is centralized and hierarchical. I call it [begin italics] Alpha [end italics]. The other, smaller and rarer, is decentralized, horizontal, and inclusive. I call this one [begin italics] Beta [end italics].” In her Introduction, she presents a Dickensian “tale of two cultures” represented by a fictional but plausible exemplar of each. “Now, obviously I’ve used some hyperbole to emphasize the differing behaviors, environments, and cultures between these two companies. But these contrasts encompass the wide range of difference I encounter regularly in my business, I spend a great deal of my daily work studying and understanding, diagnosing, and helping repair the core cultures of organizations. That’s because I’m a corporate anthropologist.”

The defining characteristics of a Beta organization reflect a number of major influences, listed in alpha order, that include Alan Briskin (collective wisdom), Brian Carney and Isaac Getz (workplace freedom), Henry Chesbrough (open business model), Tom Davenport (collective judgment), Bill George (authentic leadership), Daniel Goleman (emotional intelligence), Robert Greenleaf (servant leadership), and Peter Senge (organizational learning). This is how Ardi describes it: “Beta is the communitarian, horizontal alternative to the individualistic, hierarchical paradigm. Beta creates networks rather than silos. Beta deemphasizes secrecy, and focuses instead on the pooling of information, ideas, and opinions. Beta emphasizes teamwork over individual competition. Beta is a paradigm that lets people play to their strengths and pursue paths that offer personal satisfaction, instead of labeling them and channeling them into predetermined categories and patterns. Beta is marked by shared leadership responsibility. And at its core, Beta is about three things: communication, collaboration, and curation.”

Here in Dallas, there is a Farmer’s Market near the downtown area at which several merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples. In that spirit, I now present a representative selection of Ardi’s other observations that also caught my eye.

o “For all of prehistory, human societies were egalitarian, collaborative communities of hunters and gathers. The typically male role of hunter wasn’t valued any more or any less than the typically female role of gatherer. Both provided sustenance for the tribe. In fact, considering that females were the source of life itself, societies revered matriarchs as much as they did patriarchs.” (Page 11)

o “The seeds of two new revolutions, one social [e.g. electronic communities] and the other technological [e.g. Bog Data, Cloud], have begun to flower. Moreover, new research is calling into question traditional scientific rationalizations for the existence and lionization of the Alpha male. All of which would come together to herald the birth of a new, healthier, and in all ways far superior approach: Beta.” (65)

o “Social changes that have taken place since the 1960s created a widespread demand for a new way to organize ourselves and lead our organizations, while scientific advances were busy overturning long0standing rationalizations for the old Alpha paradigm. The only thing left that we needed to help launch a brand new paradigm? A full-fledged technological revolution.” (78)

o “In short, in today’s environment, Beta offers the best opportunity for organizational success [based on its communicative, collaborative, and curatorial approach]. But that isn’t all it offers. The Beta paradigm provides individuals with a chance to achieve the emotional and psychological satisfaction that was so often lacking inside Alpha organizations.” (122)

o “The good news: Beta works for both companies and people. Even better, adopting a Beta approach isn’t difficult. But it does require adopting some corporate attitudes and implementing some brand-new personal behaviors.” (139)

o “If you’re searching for companies that will succeed now and in the future of the Information Age, they’re easy to spot. Each will have its own unique solutions and approaches. But they’ll all share three characteristics. Look for companies that are developing and supporting facilitators; that recognize and reward craftsmen; and that are transforming themselves into learning organizations. In other words, look for Beta companies.” (159-160)

o Beta leaders make command-and-control decisions “but they explain why. They take time to communicate during a crisis, and ask for contributions from the en tire organization, emphasizing that while everyone is in this together, they need to act rapidly.” (186) Ardi then cites George Washington and his leadership as a case in point, after the American colonies won their independence from Great Britain.

o “You don’t need to transform your organization alone. And if you want to create a Beta organization you should not try to do it by yourself, either. A co-change agent can make the process easier for you and better for your company.” (200)

With regard to this last passage, I am convinced that creating a Beta organization can only be achieved by taking a Beta approach, one that is inclusive and collaborative. And those who lead the joint effort would be wise to keep in mind this passage from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Dana Ardi wrote this book for those who aspire to help create or sustain a Beta organization and especially for those among them who are entrusted with the leadership of those efforts. In fact, in a Beta organization, there is shared leadership at all levels and in all areas. Also, as the example of George Washington suggests, there are certain situations in which Betas must “don the mantle of an Alpha” to achieve the given objective. Fair enough. Ours is an imperfect world because it is inhabited by imperfect people. Betas accept that reality but reject the Alpha terms and conditions for personal growth and professional development.

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