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Arie de Geus: Living Company

James Dean or Kirk Douglas? Jimi Hendrix or Vera Lynn? Why do some people die young and other live long and productive lives? Arie de Geus, who himself is living a long and productive life, asked the same question of companies. And the answer he got was, like the long-lived companies,  unexciting, cautious, yet robust.

Arie de Geus
Arie de Geus

Short Biography

Arie de Geus was born in 1930, in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. While studying for his doctorate in Business Administration at the Nederlandse Economische Hoogeschool (now, Erasmus University) in Rotterdam, he started working at Royal Dutch Shell to support himself through his studies.

His career at Shell was long and successful. Over 38 years he took a number of regional and corporate roles. They culminated with leadership of Shell’s Group Planning Department, famous for its innovations in Scenario Planning. There, he focused his attention on Portfolio Analysis and Organisational Decision-making. He concluded that organisational learning was a key to successful decisions and corporate longevity.

He developed this theme in a Harvard Business Review article in 1988, ‘Planning as Learning’. When de Geus retired from Shell in 1989, he rapidly got involved with the newly founded Center for Organizational Learning, at MIT, joining Chris Argyris, and Edgar Schein among its advisors, and Peter Senge, as its first Director. In 1997, he wrote the book that has brought him most prominence: ‘The Living Company’.

The Living Company

In his research, de Geus found that the average life expectancy of European and Japanese companies is 12.5 years. For large multi-nationals, it is between 40 and 50 years. Why then, are some able to last hundreds of years? De Geus argues that all have a potential life of 200 to 300 years, and he set out to learn the secrets of those who have achieved it.

His principal conclusion is simple. The problem is profits. Or, more accurately, it is a short-term focus on building profits, at the cost of a longer-term focus on all aspects of the business. Chief among the long-term aspect, de Geus highlights the need to nurture people. How a long life, a business needs to prioritise human capital over financial capital.

The title of his book arises from two hypotheses de Geus sets out:

  1. A company is (in some ways) a living being
  2. The decisions made by the company are a result of a learning process

Therefore, for the living being to thrive, it must continually learn, and build on what it has, rather than constantly seek to throw out the old, and with it, the organism’s accumulated wisdom.

Other factors he found, which characterise the long-lived companies he studied, are:

  • sensitivity to their environment
  • cohesive, with a strong sense of identity
  • tolerant of experimentation
  • frugal financing decisions

He uses these to carry forward his metaphor of companies being like living organisms, in suggesting that these characteristics also represent successful survival strategies for real living creatures.

Context

Without a doubt, de Geus sets out a corporate, rather than entrepreneurial growth agenda. And his approach to human capital aligns him with other proponents of the human side of the enterprise, starting with people like Follett, Owen, Mayo, and McGregor.

His analysis is also more nuanced and less of a ready-recipe, than the book that followed it a few years later and also looked at long-lived companies: ‘Built To Last’ by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. Perhaps the biggest difference is that, while de Geus saw average companies as lasting up to fifty years, and targeted longevity on 200-300 years. Collins was interested, in Built to Last, on those that make it past the 50 year mark. Maybe de Geus would see these as merely promising adolescents.

 

 

 

 

 

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Charles Handy: Management Philosopher (Part 1)

In my research for this article, I found an unreferenced remark, suggesting that it was The Economist magazine that coined the term ‘management guru’, and that they first used it as a description of Charles Handy. Handy rejects the label – and so he should. It almost belittles the breadth of his thinking. From organisational theory, to management trends, to social polemic; Handy’s thinking goes well beyond easy categorisation.

Charles Handy

Short Biography of Charles Handy

Charles Handy was born in a small town a few miles outside of Dublin, in Ireland, in 1932. He was educated in an English public school, and at Oxford University, where he gained his MA in ‘Greats’ – classical history and philosophy. He went from there to work for Shell, taking a number of operational roles around the world, where he had great autonomy as a young manager. Returning to London, he found headquarters life didn’t suit him. What did, however, was a transfer to the staff college, where he found teaching much more to his liking than corporate administration.

MIT Sloan School

Having taught himself the basics of economics earlier on, so he could take up a role at Shell, he moved briefly to Anglo American as an economist, before travelling to MIT to study at the Sloan School of Management. here he met and studied among some of the greats of US management theory: Warren Bennis, Chris Argyris, and Edgar Schein, who supervised his studies. He was greatly influenced by them all, and also by the work of Douglas McGregor, who had also worked there and died a little before Handy arrived in 1965.

He returned to London to set up the Sloan Program at the newly founded London Business School, where he became a professor in 1972. It was there that he wrote his first book, Understanding Organizations, which has remained in print pretty much ever since 1976, with new editions updating it for modern readers. It is still a first rate introductory text, of which Handy says that he wrote it to get to grips with the ideas in it. He also (famously) recommends that once you have read it, you should re-write your own version and burn the original. In part, Pocketblog is my attempt at re-writing his book, though I never plan to dispose of my trusty 1993 fourth edition!

Handy finds his Voice

Whilst Understanding Organizations is very much a compendium and synthesis, Handy’s next book introduced his own ideas. 1978 saw the publication of The Gods of Management. We’ll take a look at the ideas in this book in part 2 of this blog.

In 1977, Handy left academia, in search of a somewhat more spiritually rewarding role. He found it in an organization set up by Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Church of England. St George’s House is an institution that encourages business and political leaders to come together, along with faith leaders, to consider contemporary and societal issues. His post as Warden allowed Handy to marry his philosophical and commercial instincts.

Portfolio Career

However, in 1981, Handy left, to pursue a new direction in his working life. This was a direction signposted in one of his most important books, 1984’s The Future of Work. In it, he signposted the development of portfolio careers, and the downshift from high-powered corporate jobs (the rack he had been on at Shell) to lesser-paid, but more congenial lifestyle careers. He embraced this downshift through the 1980s and started his own portfolio career that has served him to this day.

Handy further developed the ideas from The Future of Work in 1989’s The Age of Unreason. This book is full of ideas that we will explore further in part 2 of this blog. At its heart is Handy’s rejection of people as human ‘resources’. In modern organizations, we will want to assert our individuality.

A Stream of Ideas

The late 1980s and early 1990s were a particularly prolific time for Handy. He contributed to Making Managers, which sparked a new focus on management as a professional discipline, rather than a simple set of tasks, and led to the growth in the UK of management qualifications, and wrote Understanding Voluntary Organizations. In 1991, he presented a BBC TV series called Inside Organisations, and published a book by the same name, which set out 21 management concepts or ideas. Handy chaired the RSA from 1988-89.

His more philosophical leanings emerged from 1994, when he wrote one of his biggest selling books, The Empty Raincoat, about the emptiness at the heart of global economic growth. In the US, it was called The Age of Paradox. This book may be the most prescient among many of his works that seem that way.

Handy has barely let up with a stream of new books with new and interesting ideas:

A Summing Up

Without a doubt, Handy is a prodigious thinker. He has done and written so much, that we have to consider him one of the few of our Management Thinkers and Doers for whom a single article is not possible. Like another great, Peter Drucker, Handy is one of our foremost commentators on the nature of organisations. And like Drucker, his ideas have ranged well beyond that field. In Part 2 of this article, we will focus entirely on some of Handy’s biggest and most important management ideas.

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Edgar Schein: Organizational Culture

Edgar Schein is a social psychologist who has introduced a raft of ideas around organizational culture, and placed his thinking at the heart of the subject. He was brought to The Sloane School of Management by Douglas McGregor, where he was a contemporary of Warren Bennis. Though less widely known, he seems to me to be every bit their equal.

Edgar Schein

Short Biography

Edgar Schein was born in 1928 in Zurich and moved to the United States. There he became a citizen and studied Social Psychology, gaining a BPhil from the University of Chicago, and MA from Stanford, and his PhD in Social Psychology from Harvard, in 1952.

Following this, he spent four years in the US army, studying both leadership and, importantly for his later thinking, the rehabilitation of prisoners of war (POWs) returning from Korea under the influence of brainwashing.

In 1956, Douglas McGregor invited him to join the faculty of the Sloan School of Management at MIT, where he became a professor in 1964 and chaired the Organizational Studies Group from 1972 to 1982. He remains an emeritus professor there.

Edgar Schein’s Work

Edgar Schein’s work is deeply concerned with organizational culture and its relationship to behaviours, motivation, learning, management and leadership, and careers. Let’s survey six big themes in his work.

Organizational Culture

Schein sees culture as the dominant force within an organization, and he defines it as a pattern of shared assumptions, about how we relate to one another, how we perceive truth and reality, the balance of task focus with growth and fulfilment, and others. These affect how people behave and the values and social norms that evolve.

His primary thinking was captured in his best known book, Organizational Culture and Leadership, originally published in 1985, but now in its fourth edition. In a later article, ‘Organizational Socialization and the Profession of Management‘ he argued that integrating with an organizational culture requires undoing, ‘unfreezing‘ prior cultural norms, and establishing new ones. He related this to what he learned during the Korean War, about brainwashing, and suggested there are three responses to these pressures.

  1. Rejection of the organization’s imposed norms and culture: ‘rebellion
  2. Selective adoption of certain values and norms: ‘creative individualism
  3. Full acceptance of the new culture: ‘conformity

Psychological Contract

In another of Schein’s important text books, Organizational Psychology, (1980), he focused on the idea of a ‘psychological contract’ between an employer and its employees. He credits the original idea to Chris Argyris, but develops it considerably. The psychological contract is a set of undocumented expectations between the organization and its employees. Where expectations match, there will be harmony: where they mismatch, problems arise, such as disloyalty, under-performance, and industrial disputes.

Management Cultures

Within an organization, Schein identified three management cultures that co-exist and, to a degree, compete unhelpfully with one another. Organizational Learning will come as people evolve their organizational culture to properly integrate these three cultures.

  1. Operator Culture: local cultures within operating units
  2. Engineering Culture: technicians and experts seeking optimal technical solutions, mistrustful of the soft roles of people in driving the right answers
  3. Executive Culture: managers focused on financially-driven metrics

Organizational Learning

Under the pressures of constant change, organizations can only thrive when they learn quickly. The problem is that it is frustrated by employees’ and managers’ fear of change. He calls this fear ‘Anxiety 1’ and argues that for learning to occur, it must be overwhelmed by ‘Anxiety 2’ – the fear of the consequences of not learning, and therefore of not transforming to meet the new realities. He therefore advocates the need for creating a culture where people can feel safe to learn and experiment, as a way of overcoming Anxiety 1 without the need to induce greater levels of fear.

Motivational Theories

Not surprisingly for someone who came to the Sloan School at the behest of Douglas McGregor, Schein’s fertile mind also paid attention to motivation. He created two contributions. The first was to group models of workplace motivation into three categories, and the second was to add a fourth category.

  1. The Rational-Economic Model
    McGregor’s Theory X, building on Taylor’s approaches to Scientific management suggest we act out of compliance with incentives of coercion.
  2. The Social Model
    Mayo’s Hawthorne experiments suggested we respond to social cures, which was in part captured in McGregor’s Theory Y.
  3. The Self-Actualizing Model
    Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and, to some extent, McGregor’s Theory Y focused on our need for something more than social or economic benefit.
  4. Schein’s fourth category really seems obvious from any distance…
    The Complex Model
    We are all subject to a whole array of needs, expectations, desires, and motivations, and a wise manager will engage with all the subtlety and complexity of each individual. For me, Self Determination Theory is a good introduction to that necessity.

Career Anchors

We all have perceptions about ourselves. Carol Dweck has shown that we are most successful when we feel free to enlarge these as we learn, rather than see ourselves in a fixed way.

In his 1985 book, Career Anchors: The Changing Nature of Careers, (now in a new edition), Schein documented, first five, then three more, perceptions that act as anchors in the career choices we make. The original five were:

  1. Their technical-functional competence
  2. Their general managerial competence
  3. Their need for autonomy and independence
  4. Their need for security and stability
  5. Their entrepreneurial spirit and sense of creativity

The three later components are:

  1. Their desire to give service or their dedication to a cause
  2. Their need for challenge for its own sake
  3. Their desired lifestyle.

What is Culture?

Excerpts from an Interview with Edgar Schein

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Peter Senge: Learning Organisation

If business strategy is the search for competitive advantage, then the Journal of Business Strategy would seemed to have endorsed one strategy above all others. In naming Peter Senge as their ‘Strategist of the Century’ they implicitly set his concept of The Learning Organisation on a strategic pedestal. Indeed, they described Senge as someone who ‘had the greatest impact on the way we conduct business today’.

Peter Senge

Short Biography

Peter Senge was born in California, in 1947. He attended his local university, Stanford, where he earned a BS in Engineering. He moved to MIT where he studied Social Systems Modelling for his MS, followed by a move to the MIT Sloan School of Management in 1970, where he gained a PhD in management that he completed in 1978. He stayed on, continuing his research into how we learn, within organisations.

His research culminated in his best-selling synthesis of these ideas, ‘The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization‘. This book has been rated by Harvard Business Review as one of the seminal management books.

His subsequent work has built on this theme:

What is The Learning Organisation?

The learning organisation is one that encourages continued learning for both groups and individuals, as a source of competitive advantage. People at all levels from shop floor to senior management will be continually developing their skill levels, knowledge and experience. It is like building an institutional ‘growth mindset’ by increasing the creative capacity.

When Senge published The Fifth Discipline in 1990, the ideas were not new. Indeed, Senge acknowledges his debts, especially to Chris Argyris, and his 1978 book ‘On Organizational Learning‘; and to Arie de Geus. The term “Learning Organization’, which Senge has made his own, was coined in 1987 by Bob Garratt, in his book ‘The Learning Organization and the Need for Directors Who Think‘.

In The Fifth Discipline, Senge describes five core components of personal development. This book is often viewed as highly theoretical, so his follow-up Fifth Discipline Fieldbook set out practical answers to the questions he received about ‘how’ to implement these ideas.

The five means of development, that create a Learning Organization, are:

  1. Personal Mastery
    Individual, continuous, life-long learning. Senge also emphasises the importance of spiritual development. This, he argues, allows us to understand the tension between reality and vision. He suggests this is the source of creativity.
  2. Mental Models
    Senge suggests that we carry implicit mental models of our world and our organizations. We need to understand and challenge them. In the Fieldbook, he offers the tool of a ladder of inference, that climbs up from observation of data, to selection of the data, to applying meanings to them, to making assumptions, from which we draw conclusions, from which we adopt beliefs, that drive our choices of actions. This process helps us to analyse our values, beliefs and actions.
  3. Shared Vision
    When team members create a vision that they share and jointly own, this brings them together, serves as a basis for creativity, and readies them for change.
  4. Team Learning
    Senge believes that group development will outpace individual development in driving team performance. He also distinguishes between dialogue (an exploratory process) and discussion (a process for narrowing and selecting from options).
  5. Systems Thinking
    This is the ‘fifth discipline’. It requires us to see an organization as an inter-connected whole, with a complex set of inter-relationships. Processes do not work as simple chains of cause and effect, but as complex interacting feedback loops that reinforce or counteract each other.

Two Videos of Dr Senge Describing his Central Ideas

Introduction to Organizational Learning

Introduction to Systems Thinking

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Chris Argyris: Organisational Learning

In last week’s Pocketblog, we met a thinker, Roselinde Torres, who compels leaders to ask difficult questions of themselves. Chris Argyris was another thinker – an academic this time – who demands we ask difficult questions.

Chris Argyris

 

Brief Biography

Argyris’ early academic career brought him into contact with the great psychologist, Kurt Lewin, and culminated in academic posts, first at Yale (1951-1971) and then at Harvard.  He was a behavioural scientist who devoted much of his research  to understanding organisational behaviour and learning, noting that:

‘individual learning is a necessary but insufficient condition for organisational learning’

His Ideas

His early work focused on the practice and development of T Groups; a form of training (the T of T Group) in which managers are able to learn through social interaction. These were popular in the 1960s and 70s for the success they had in shifting interpersonal behaviours of participants. However, Argyris and others became disenchanted as evidence grew that the impact of these interventions was not sustained back in the workplace.

This led Argyris to theorise that the way we behave within organisations is different from the ideas we claim to profess. He labelled the two sides of this distinction: ‘theories in use’ for what we do, and ‘espoused theories’ for what we say. Our behaviours – theories in use – are driven only partially by espoused theories, and to a greater extent by fears, pride, entrenched patterns and the need to conform. Indeed, he suggested that we don’t just behave as we do, rather than as we profess; but we are often unaware of the gap.

His most famous single contribution, articulated in his book, co-written with Donald Schön, called ‘Organisational Learning‘, was the idea of  ‘double loop learning’.

Argyris argued that reasoning needs to take pride of place as the basis for decision-making. However, the prevailing model of learning that he and Schön defined as ‘single loop learning’ is an impoverished approach.

In Single Loop learning, we look at the results of our actions and re-think the strategies we chose.

Single-loop learning

 

The flaw in this, they argued, is that our chosen approach comes from a deep seated set of interpretations, assumptions, values and models. What we should be prepared to do is to challenge those and search for better, more reliable assumptions and models. This is Double-Loop learning.

Double-loop learning

 

Argyris further pointed out that learning comes from either a match or a mis-match.  If our actions produce the desired result, then we can learn from the well-selected behaviours. If they do not, then we can learn from the mis-match either by correcting our actions (single-loop learning) or by revising the governing variables (assumptions) that led to our choice of actions (double-loop learning).

You can learn more about Argyris and Double Loop Learning on the excellent infed website.

You may also be interested in the following pocketbooks:

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