I’m reading …

Think Like an Artist: How to Live a Happier, Smarter, More Creative LifeThink Like an Artist: How to Live a Happier, Smarter, More Creative Life by Will Gompertz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a little beacon in a sea of mediocre books about creativity. The lessons Gompertz has distilled from discussions with artists may not be earth-shattering but I found them enlightening and refreshingly authentic. Gompertz avoids slipping into platitudes, for example about learning from failure, and shares some genuinely insightful lessons about coping when things don’t go according to plan. Where he becomes a bit anodyne is in the final chapter when he tries to apply some of these lessons to organisations. It’s difficult to argue with him about the stultifying effects of hierarchy and the limitations that current approaches to remuneration have on workers’ motivation (indeed – who would wish to argue?) but these issues are hardly revelatory – in fact they have been discussed for decades. Given that Gompertz works for the BBC I’m sure he has countless examples of how organisations can both enable creativity to flourish and crush it through organisational bureaucracy. It would have been interesting to have some first hand accounts of this but I guess he – like all of us – needs to be careful about what he says about his employer! The wonderfully chosen quotes and examples together with his playful sense of humour make this book a real gem.

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The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things RightThe Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Checklist Manifesto is full of the well-written anecdotes for which Gawande is rightly praised. In it, he brings his world of the operating theatre vividly to life. He also draws in experiences of other professionals – from the aviation industry and the world of huge construction projects – and deftly draws parallels between them and his own realm. Despite this, the Checklist Manifesto is a curious book. For starters, how is it possible to write a whole book simply advocating the use of checklists? Writing a checklist is not exactly rocket science or brain surgery, is it? Except, we quickly learn that rocket science (or its kid brother, the aviation industry) does rely on checklists. And worryingly we find out that brain surgery (and simpler surgical procedures) that you might expect to be awash with checklists to protect patients and ensure nothing gets forgotten, doesn’t seem to have any. Yikes – how is that possible?

In answering this and other questions, Gawande shows how the creation and adoption of a simple surgical checklist for the World Health Organisation had to confront issues of ego and teamwork, power and culture, organisational hierarchies, and the unintended consequences that are so often the unfortunate outcomes of well-meaning systems. Gawande’s heart is definitely in the right place – there is more than enough evidence to show that checklists really save lives and reduce infection even in the high-tech operating theatres of the United States.

However this is a book aimed not only at clinicians but other professionals too. I was left with a concern that because his own field of medicine does not seem to codify its experience into tools such as checklists, Gawande assumes that very few other areas of human endeavour do so either – except for the aviation and construction industries that are such a source of inspiration to him. My experience suggests that this is an unreasonable assumption and one that risks undermining the broader applicability of his message.

So who is Gawande hoping will sign up to his manifesto? I’m involved in the field of international development and humanitarian work so should I and my fellow development practitioners be queuing up to add our names, I asked myself? Well maybe – but our field is already pretty good at codifying what we do. And have most of us not embraced procedures such as after action review to learn from successes and unintended outcomes? Well even if we have, there is always room for improvement. The process of preparing a checklist may well be a really good way of recording the results of an ‘after action review’ in a way that improves our ability to do things better in the future.

So Atul Gawande may get a few more signatures to his manifesto after all. And mine will be among them.

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3 August 2015 In order to prepare for a recent piece of work with WWF UK on OD I read a number of books that friends and colleagues have recommended or that received particularly good reviews. Tosca Maria Bruno-VanVijfeijken who co-convenes the INGO Learning Group On Organizational Change recommended Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal (2013) Reframing Organizations, Fifth Edition, Jossey Bass. Don’t be put off by the size and text-book look – this is a very readable and eminently practical approach to understanding and managing organisations that introduces the four frame model (the structural frame; the human resource frame; the political frame; and the symbolic frame) using very topical examples. A recent book by Ed Griffin, Mike Alsop, Martin Saville and Grahame Smith (2014) A Field Guide for Organisation Development: Taking Theory Into Ptractice, Gower Press was well-reviewed and justifiably so. It is a collection of stimulating chapters on recent thinking about OD and includes excellent chapters on ‘working with chaos and complexity’, organisation culture, contrasting diagnostic and dialogic approaches to OD and managing complex change. It also includes a rare contribution to monitoring and evaluating OD interventions. Rosalind Armson (2011) Growing Wings on the Way: Systems Thinking for Messy Situations, Triarchy Press was an impulse buy. It is an excellent and very readable introduction to the application of systems approaches to complex problems. Worth getting for the chapter on ‘rich pictures’ alone!

Some other books with an OD or organisational learning focus that I have enjoyed reading have been:

Duncan Green (2016) How Change Happens. Available for free download from http://how-change-happens.com

Frederic Laloux (2016) Reinventing Organizations, Nelson Parker. Available on ‘Pay What feels Right’ basis from http://www.reinventingorganizations.com/pay-what-feels-right.html

Erica Seville (2017) Resilient Organizations: How to survive, thrive and create opportunities through crisis and change, Kogan Page. ISBN 978-0-7494-7855-1

David K Hurst (2002) Crisis and Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organisational Change, Harvard Business Review Press. ISBN 1-57851-870-9

Frank Barrett (2012) Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz, Harvard Business Review Press. ISBN-13: 978-1-4221-6110-4

Barry Johnson (1996) Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems, HRD Press. ISBN 0-87425-176-1

Rick James (2012) Inspiring Change: Creating More Space for Grace in Organisations, Oslo: Digni. ISBN 978-82-93052-00-5

Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge and Linda Holbeche (2011) Organization Development: A practitioner’s guide for OD and HR. London: Kogan Page. ISBN 978-0-7494-6094-5

21 April 2010 Michael Sandel was the 2009 BBC Reith lecturer http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00kt7rg and has since written an introduction to moral philosophy entitled ‘Justice’. The book is bang up-to-date using as an example of moral indignation the public disgust about bailed-out bankers awarding themselves outrageously large bonuses. Sandel explores the meaning of justice as welfare, freedom and virtue and concludes his book by arguing – as he does in his Reith lectures – for a reinvigoration of the idea of citizenship. An interesting read providing a moral compass during the current UK general election debates.

4 February 2010 I have been reading a lot recently but not posting anything here! On the recommendation of a participant in the Swedish Mission Council organisational learning support initiative I bought Stephen Gill’s ‘Developing a Learning Culture in Nonprofit Organizations’. It’s interesting and practical but I was relieved to find that it wasn’t “the book I nearly wrote myself”! However, its great to see more material on organisational learning that is directly targeted at the non-profit organisation.

22 September 2009 I have just finished reading ‘The Starfish and the Spider’ by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom which was recommended to me. It’s a pop management book, very readable and entertaining but one that doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its subtitle to examine ‘The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organisations’. In fact it isn’t really about leaderless organisations – its more about decentralised organisations with supportive, catalytic, low profile leaders – and hence is hardly revolutionary. The leaderless ‘organisations’ – starfish organisations – that the book does shine an interesting light on, are more in the category of self-organised movements accountable primarily to their own members. What the authors have to say about these is interesting but it is difficult to see how their  ‘rules’ could be applied to organisations such as NGOs that need to be seen to be accountable to a wide range of external stakeholders. Nevertheless the book had enough challenge to make me look at organisations from a new perspective and that alone makes it worth recommending.

My concern about climate change and my desire to reduce my carbon footprint has led me to two very different but equally inspiring books. The first, by the Scottish environmental activist, Alastair McIntosh, is entitled ‘Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition’. It covers the science and politics well but its main contribution is in exploring our ‘addictive consumer mentality’. It is unusual for this kind of book to use examples from Scotland so that is an added attraction for me but McIntosh has an engaging writing style (even if he tends to overuse the exclamation mark) and speaks from the heart. The second book, ‘The Transition Handbook’ by Rob Hopkins is more of a practical manual on how to move on from the guilt and anxiety that discussions on climate change usually engender to ‘developing a positive vision … to create a more self reliant existence’. I live in a suburban area of a small town on the east coast of Scotland and rely on international travel for my livelihood so my options for reducing my carbon footprint and ‘being the change I want to see in the world’ often seem limited to me. But each book, in its own way, has provided hope and ideas for manageable, even radical, change.

A couple of books that have provided some interesting insights into the application of Web 2.0 are Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody (subtitled ‘The Power of Organizing without Organizations’) and We-Think (subtitled Mass innovation, not mass production) by Charles Leadbeater. Both examine collaborative working using web technology but from different directions and have a characteristically positive and somewhat overoptimistic view of what Web 2.0 can deliver. Clay Shirky’s book uses some lively examples to demonstrate the political and consumer power of collaborative organisation of using blogs, MySpace and Twitter. Leadbeater’s book, using some fascinating examples from the nonprofit world (among them the Grameen Bank, the human genome project, WRVS and the Jubliee 2000 campaign), has greater ambitions for Web 2.0: arguing that FaceBook and MySpace can lead to a more open society. Hmmm – not if all the content that people post in their FaceBook pages becomes the property of FaceBook’s CEO Mark Zuckerburg. There’s a good introduction to We Think on You Tube

INTRAC, through its Praxis Programme, has produced some excellent publications on capacity building and civil society strengthening but what has been missing is a book addressing the practicalities of capacity building – until now! This gap has been filled admirably by Brenda Lipson and Martina Hunt in their recent book ‘Capacity Building Framework: A values-based programming guide’ Those familiar with INTRAC’s courses (including the one I teach on ‘Organisational Development’ will recognise some of the conceptual frameworks used in this book: the three-circle model, the onion skin model and the organisational life cycle. What sets this book apart from the very few others written about capacity building in Civil Society organisations is the ‘values’ perspective used throughout. As an introductory guide for budding capacity builders or a useful point of reflection for those more experienced this book provides some very useful materials in an easily assimilated format.

I have recently been re-reading parts of Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams. The subtitle ‘How mass collaboration changes everything’ gives an idea of what this book is about. It examines how collaboration rather than competition is driving innovation in the development of web-based goods and services. Using some fascinating examples ranging from the development of Scorecard to collate public data to ‘name and shame’ polluters to ‘mashing’ data on websites to enable people to trace loved ones following hurricane Katrina using the Katrina PeopleFinder Project, the authors demonstrate what is possible with web technology when people take an open, collaborative approach.

Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine‘ – an expose of the US exploitation of natural and human-created disasters as a means of creating new market opportunities for their private sector corporations. I have only started this but already I feel incensed at the self-serving complicity between politicians and the corporations that benefit from their decisions. NGOs have a lot to fear from Klein’s revelations as disaster response (which has historically been a focus of humanitarian NGOs) becomes increasingly seen as a profitable opportunity to exploit those in a vulnerable psychological state rather than a situation requiring caring and compassionate provision of assistance.

Margaret Wheatley‘s ‘Finding Our Way’ – a collection of wonderfully perceptive and humane articles by one of my favourite analysts of organisations and their development. Wheatley has a great ability to challenge conventional views of organisations in ways that require us to question what we learn as ‘common sense’.

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