The Future of Management: A book review by Bob Morris

The Future of Management Gary Hamel with Bill Breen
Harvard Business School Press (2007)

With all due respect to today’s business bestsellers, most of the best books have already been written on the most important subjects. Case in point: This invaluable “guide to inventing tomorrow’s best practices today”

As Gary Hamel clearly indicates in his earlier books, notably in Competing for the Future (with C.K. Prahalad) and then in Leading the Revolution, his mission in life is to exorcise “the poltergeists who inhabit the musty machinery of management” so that decision-makers can free themselves from what James O’Toole aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” In his Preface to this volume, written with Bill Breen, Hamel asserts that “today’s best practices aren’t good enough” and later suggests that he wrote this book for “dreamers and doers” who want to invent “tomorrow’s best practices today.” In this brilliant book, he explains how to do that.

In the city where I live, we have a number of outdoor markets at which slices of fresh fruit are offered as samples of the produce available. In that same spirit, I frequently include brief excerpts from a book to help those who read my review to get a “taste.” Here is a representative selection of Hamel’s insights:

“To thrive in an increasingly disruptive world, companies must become as strategically adaptable as they are operationally efficient. To safeguard their margins, they must become gushers of rule-breaking innovation. And if they’re going to out-invent and outthink as growing mob of upstarts, they must learn how to inspire their employees to give the very best of themselves every day. These are the challenges that must be addressed by 21st-century management innovators.” (Page 11)

“Many factors contribute to strategic inertia, but three pose a particularly grave threat to timely renewal. The first is the tendency of management teams to deny or ignore the need for a strategy reboot. The second is a dearth of compelling alternatives to the status quo, which often leads to strategic paralysis. And the third: allocational rigidities that make it difficult to deploy talent and capital behind new initiatives. Each of these barriers stands in the way of zero-trauma change; hence each deserves to be a focal point for management innovation.” (Page 44)

“Skepticism and humility are important attributes for a management innovator – yet they’re not enough. To create space for management innovation you will need to systematically deconstruct the management orthodoxies that bind you and your colleagues to new possibilities. Here’s how to get started. Pick a big management issue like change, innovation, or employee engagement, and then assemble 10 or 20 of your colleagues. Ask each of them to write down ten things they believe about the nominated problem. Have them inscribe each belief on a Post-it note. Then plaster the stickies on a wall and group similar beliefs together.” Then sustain a rigorous discussion during which all premises and assumptions are challenged. “To escape the straitjacket of conventional thinking, you have to be able to distinguish between beliefs that describe the world as it is, and describe the world as it is and must forever remain.” Focus on what can be changed…and should be changed. (Pages 130-131)

I especially appreciate Hamel’s analysis of three exemplary companies: Whole Foods Market (a “community of purpose”), W.L. Gore (an “innovation democracy”), and Google (“brink-of-chaos management”). Hamel focuses his attention to how these companies invent tomorrow’s best practices today. He cleverly juxtaposes a “management innovation challenge” with each company’s “distinctive management practices.” Having established and then sustained a one-on-one rapport with his reader throughout the narrative, Hamel makes it crystal clear that that he is not urging his reader to address the same challenges and develop the same best practices for any one of the three exemplary companies, much less emulate all three. That would be insane.

“There isn’t any law that prevents large organizations from being engaging, innovative, and adaptive – and mostly bureaucracy free. Even better, it really is possible to set the human spirit free at work. So no more excuses. It’s time for you to buckle down and start inventing the future of management…My goal in writing this book was not to predict the future of management but to help you invent it…From the first time since the dawning of the industrial age, the only way to build a company that’s fit for the future is to build one that is fit for human beings as well.”

So, there’s Gary Hamel’s challenge: Start your own “revolution” and lead it. If not now, when? If you don’t, who will?

 


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