By Dave Crisp
When you work extensively in one area, it’s sometimes hard to know exactly where you heard about something that later proves interesting. I believe a colleague referred me to a great new book by David K. Hurst, a Graduate School of Business professor at the University of Regina.
With years of being a senior executive, consulting and being an associate of the Center for Creative Leadership, his credentials are excellent, but even so the somewhat new-age title, The New Ecology of Leadership made me hesitate for some months before reading it.
Some days I think I’ve absorbed all the "new" leadership stuff I can for a lifetime, but finally the subtitle “Business mastery in a chaotic world” got to me. Chaos and complexity sciences are increasingly important to understanding organization and individual performance.
Both my fears and excitement were justified. For an MBA, Hurst is widely read and insightful (just kidding all you MBAs) far beyond any usual business school training. His students have a great resource whether or not they fully appreciate it.
The book is notable in numerous ways. It’s great to see a business prof draw on the work of Mary Parker Follett, one of the greatest early management consultants who laid out many of these observations nearly 100 years ago. It’s hard to believe and important to remember that we’ve been struggling with these issues that long, with what often seems little progress.
Hurst’s real life examples, some personal, some from news and reports, reinforce just what missteps creep into even the best managed businesses, when success makes them complacent and rigid, or newness causes them to stumble in the weeds. It’s always refreshing to hear someone who is blunt about how easily we all go wrong give a credible description of why seemingly obvious flaws continue to bring down excellent operations.
In short, Hurst has attempted to provide a well-thought-out model of how complexity functions in organizations throughout their development cycles and what could be done right that often isn’t. As many of us do, he draws on ideas from many sources, all identified and assembled in novel ways.
The challenge of the book is that he attempts to provide a model that addresses chaotic, complex organization dynamics completely. He is careful to note that one can never be prescriptive without being involved in the details or, to use his key word, the context of what’s actually going on from day to day.
Nevertheless any effort at a complete model is bound to be challenging and complex to explain, even harder to read and understand clearly and very difficult for all but a few to start to apply effectively. The book is great background. I think it should be required reading at all business schools and for as many executives as can cope. I didn’t find it a one-sitting book and would have appreciated being able to discuss it at length with other readers as I meandered through. Definitely a book to refer back to as new thoughts occur and situations evolve.
If there is one overriding lesson, it is his emphasis on exactly the issue of engaging in the real issues — the context of situations. Executives he notes, particularly in Western nations, are tuned to analysis, especially managing by numbers that are often visible only after the fact, after the horse has stumbled out of the barn and fallen. Numerical reports of performance are fine, to catch what went wrong and try to fix it — but they are too late to avoid poor results happening in the first place.
At the pace of change today, we need foresight more than ever and that only comes to us through thoughtfulness and understanding, something we mostly leave ourselves little time for. It rarely comes from pure numbers. For this point alone the book is worth reading.
When executives sit in ivory towers trying to execute strategy by orders based on what they read in "after the fact" reports, they are immediately in danger of ordering the wrong solutions, over-stepping those who really know what’s going on minute to minute and suffocating the very initiative that might have improved things.
Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.
If more of us were to start mulling over Hurst’s model and advice from early in our careers, just examining his perspective of what went wrong as we try to progress forward, making mistakes and re-thinking successes, a far greater ability to envision alternate approaches and strategies would develop much more reliably.