Challenge the Ordinary: A book review by Bob Morris

Challenge the OrdinaryChallenge the Ordinary: Why Revolutionary Companies Abandon Conventional Mindsets, Question Long-Held Assumptions, and Kill Their Sacred Cows
Linda D. Henman
Career Press (2014)

“Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”
— Richard Dawkins

I agree with Linda Henman that, in order to thrive, indeed just to survive — at least for a while — organizations must not become hostage to what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” As I worked my way through Henman’s narrative, I was again reminded of Marshall Goldsmith’s admonition, “What got you here won’t get you there.” I presume to add that what got you here won’t even allow you to remain here, wherever and whatever “here” may be. That’s why leaders must constantly challenge their organization’s status quo. That’s what Richard Dawkins had in mind when making the observation that I selected to serve as the title of this review.

And that’s why Henman wrote this book. More specifically, to help leaders to “abandon conventional mindsets, question long-held assumptions, and kill their sacred cows.” She obviously agrees with Bob Kriegel: “sacred cows make the best burgers.” It is no coincidence that many (if not most) of the companies Fortune magazine annually ranks among the most highly regarded and best to work for companies are also annually ranked among those that are most profitable and have the greatest cap value in the industry. They are extraordinary companies and, as often as not, created and sustained by what seem to be ordinary people. In Chapter 9, Henman advises, “Don’t recruit a star; create a constellation.”

In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.”

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Henman’s coverage.

o The Paradoxical Organization: Transient and Timeless (Pages 14-16)
o Head in Exceptional Directions (38-42)
o The Feud Between Strategy and Decision-Making (50-55)
Note: Peter Drucker once observed, “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” In the same vein, Michael Porter has observed, “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
o Values: The Foundation of Your Legacy (63-69)
o Indecision: The Culture Killer (71-73)
o Quality: The Advantage for Outgunning the Competition (82-88)
o Customer Focus: Impressing [and Convincing] the Ultimate Judge (90-95)
o Agility: The Guns, Germs, and Steel of the Organization (95-98)
o Ethics: Doing Well by Doing Right (103-106)
o Expertise: The Raw Data of Talent (106-109)
o Excellence: Consistency of Performance (110-114)
o Traits of Virtuosos (120-126)
o Raw Talent: Accept No Substitutes (126-128)
o Beware Snakes in Suits (131-135)
o Falling Stars and Snakes in Suits (141-145)
o Snake or Bad Match? (159-164)
o A New Model of Leadership (173-182)
o The Eight Virtues of Virtuoso Teams (194-209)
o Formulate a Solid Business Strategy (214-221)

With appropriate modification, most of the information, insights, and counsel that Henman provides can be of substantial value to leaders in almost any organization, whatever its size and nature may be. For example, she suggests four traits of the exceptional organization:

1. Strategy: “Separating the Notes from the Noise”
2. Culture: “Separating the Duck from the Quack”
3. Excellence: “Separating the Ace from the Pack”
4. Talent: “Separating the Rose from the Poison Ivy [or Thorns]”

Exceptional organizations differentiate themselves from competition, of course, but also differentiate themselves from what they have done and how they have done it until mow. All of the observations quoted earlier all speak to that mindset far more eloquently than I can, urging leaders to formulate strategies that guide and inform, indeed drive initiatives in a culture within which innovation is most likely thrive.

I agree with Linda Henman that non-negotiable values determine how people treat each other but there is always room for improvement in the work they do and how they do it. If your organization is not as yet extraordinary or once was but has lost its way, here is — in my opinion — the best single source to learn not only how to challenge the ordinary but, more to the point, to replace it with a mindset, strategies, and tactics that will achieve increasingly better performance at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise.

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