Think Outside the Building: A book review by Bob Morris

Think Outside the Building: How Advanced Leaders Can Change the World One Smart Innovation at a Time
Rosabeth Moss Kanter
PublicAffairs (January 2010)

How to establish a workplace culture within which advanced leadership is most likely to thrive.

I have read many of Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s previously published books and reviewed most of those. Each is of unique and substantial value but I think her latest will prove to be the most valuable (thus far) because it will have the widest and deepest impact. It is a “must read” for those now preparing for a career in business or have already embarked on one.

The “building” to which the book’s title refers is the given workplace culture, at a time when so many companies have become hostage to what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” It can also be viewed as the [begin italics] organizational context [end italics] within which innovative thinking and decision-making challenge the status quo.

Kanter introduces an especially appropriate extended metaphor: “Castles are representations of institutions…[they] are any set of institutional structures that loom large and feel permanent. Castles are monuments to the past and to past thinking, museums of preservation. They are establishments harboring the establishment, the elite of business and society.

“Knowing the nature of castles helps challengers develop a plan of attack or a mode of change…The best way is to go around it or underneath it. Instead of rushing the front door, look below. Sneak around the back, and befriend disaffected but talented occupants on lower floors or underground who might leave to join you. Hold private meetings downstairs to strategize, invisible to the upstairs occupants. Find the secret backstairs passageways. Burrow underneath, expand the tunnels, and exploit weaknesses until eventually the foundations crumble. Then pry open the windows to let in fresh air and fresh thinking.”

This advice is worthy of Achilles and Sun Tzu.

Kanter developed the concept of “advanced leadership” and founded a program at Harvard University. Briefly, The “Advanced Leadership Initiative (ALI) is a third stage in higher education designed to prepare experienced leaders to take on new challenges in the social sector where they have the potential to make an even greater societal impact than they did in their career.

“Faculty from Harvard’s professional schools of business, education, government, law, medicine and public health formed ALI to build knowledge about societal challenges requiring interdisciplinary leadership skills and to deploy accomplished leaders at later life stages in public service. This bold, academic innovation has now become another facet of higher education, changed the concept of “retirement,” and helped change the world for the better.”

Advanced leaders share a desire to move beyond established structures to chart new pathways where ambiguity, complexity, and conflict reign. “They find new ideas and engage in new modes of action. They must think outside the building.”

These are among the passages of greatest interest and vaue to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Kanter’s coverage in Chapters 1-6:

o What Is Advanced About Advanced Leadership? (Pages 7-9)
o The Past and Future of Leadership (11-14)
o The Future of Big International Challenges: Why Change Is Difficult (23-29)
o Before Problems Get Worse: The Urgent Need for New Approaches (33-36)
o Finding Advanced Leaders: The Wendy-Kopp-to-Michael-Bloomberg Continuum (46-48)

o Limits to Advanced Leadership: Seven Perverse Traps of Career Success (54-66)
o Tapping Dreams: The First Steps to Advanced Leadership (85-87)
o Kaleidoscope Thinking: From Fragments of Experience to a New Possibility (97-98)
o Noticing Needs, Seeing Gaps: Contexual Intelligence (105-109)
o Passion and Commitment (118-121)

o Persuasion Rules: The Importance of Stories (124-127)
o Reframing to Enlarge Possibilities (133-136)
o Pitch a Big Tent: A Story That Enlists and Empowers (136-143)
o Getting the Wheel Rolling: Coalitions at the Table (160-167)
o Forming Allies into Coalitions (170-174)

o Enlarge the Circles: Campaigning to Sell Change (180-186)
o Several Advanced Learning Skills (189-193)
o Following the Rule of Three (194-197)
o Unexpected Hurdles, Obstacles, and Roadblocks (210-212)
o Why People Give Up: The Roots of Failure (215-221)

Then in the final chapter, “Good to Grow: The Road to Impact,” Kanter provides a “yellow brick road” for advanced leaders to follow while thinking more innovatively to achieve ultimate success. I highly recommend that her “Conclusion” (Pages 265-284) be re-read at least every 90 days (if not monthly) to keep the key issues clearly in focus.

As is her custom, Kanter anchors her key insights in real-world situations with which her readers can readily identify. She makes brilliant use of relevant examples, mini-case studies, and lessons learned (i.e. dos and don’ts) when explaining how to accelerate the development of advanced leadership, and, meanwhile, establish a workplace culture within which that process is most likely to thrive.

I agree with Rosabeth Moss Kanter that advanced leadership offers “the leadership paradigm for the future: the ability to ‘think outside the building’ to overcome establishment paralysis and produce innovations for a better world.”

She prompts me to ask, channeling Hillel the Elder: If not now, when? If not you, who?

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