This month, Greg and Steve share with you some books they hold near and dear to their hearts—personally, as well as professionally.

Words of Wisdom

This month, Greg and Steve share with you some books they hold near and dear to their hearts—personally, as well as professionally.

Steve Crandall says: Once again, we’re taking a break from questions (but, please, keep them coming, folks!) and going from a reactive into a proactive mode. Greg and I chose this month to each look at two books we think are significant and worth of your attention. I’d like to discuss a couple of books that are more organization-oriented.

Being binary, I’ve chosen books from opposite perspectives. One does an excellent job of describing and interpreting organizations as they are; the other prescribes what organizations should or could be.

The first is an old favorite, now in its fifth edition: The Ropes to Skip and the Ropes to Know: Studies in Organizational Behavior, by R. Richard Ritti. I discovered this book a few lifetimes ago in my short-lived MBA period. I think I’d love this book just for its exquisite title, but no other book I’ve found does such a good job of describing why organizations are the way they are and why things happen as they do. Yes, this is a textbook, but like no other you’ve ever read. It’s an excellent guide to how corporate life really functions. As an example, the introduction offers a memo posted on “The Company” bulletin board:

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“The office of the president announced today that Ben W. Franklyn has been named to the newly established office of corporate director for Safety Programs. Mr. Franklyn moves from his post as plant manager at Portsmouth. Replacing Mr. Franklyn at Portsmouth will be Edward Wilson Shelby IV. Shelby will hold the position of acting plant manager with specific responsibility for the development of our new Expandrium program. Ted Shelby has been staff assistant to the president, responsible for financial control systems.”

Sounds pretty innocuous, rather mundane, right? Well, to those adept at reading the tea leaves at The Company, here’s what it really means: Ben Franklyn has been a loyal, valued, longtime employee of the company, but his time has passed. Notice that he wasn’t promoted—he was named to this “newly established” position. In other words, The Company found a nice, safe place for Ben to stay in the remaining years until his retirement. Meanwhile, the new Expandrium line is in trouble, so Ted Shelby, a bean counter from the president’s office, has been dispatched to shake things up. He’s acting plant manager so he can do the dirty work, make some heads roll, and then get out and let someone with real plant experience get things going again.

The Ropes is full of little lessons like this. Its chapters are all stories from the life of The Company, with characters like Ted Shelby; Ben Franklyn; Kerry Drake (the engineering manager); and Stanley, the up-and-coming trainee. The book includes stories such as what happens to Ted when he replaces his Level I Manager furniture with a round table and chairs (to “facilitate communication” ); why Stanley is befuddled by the reaction to his first important presentation; and why the mail boy and secretary are Jimmie and Bonnie, but the president is Mr. Marsh. This book is a fascinating look at the reasons why things are as they are.

A caution: Read this book in small chunks. Taking it all in at once can be somewhat depressing. Ritti isn’t cynical as such; rather, his descriptions and explanations of office politics and corporate behavior are so true, you wonder how any productive work gets done.

From how things are to how things should be: The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, by Peter M. Senge. I’m not fond of books that promise, “Just do this, this, and this, and your company will be 100 percent more productive, your employees will love you, and you’ll get rich.” And there are a lot of them out there. The Fifth Discipline, however, is a favorite of mine because it avoids the “quick fix,” instead describing some common organizational and individual problems and pointing the way to possible solutions.

The premise is that organizations, as well as individuals, must be learning entities, always open to new ways, always searching for new structures and procedures. The fifth discipline of the title is the concept of “systems thinking”—the ability to put everything into a larger context and to recognize that many problems are not the result of errors, but of structure.

Senge highlights this by describing a business simulation he uses with his clients, the “beer game,” which demonstrates how—when each team in a system only sees its own point of view—disasters can (and usually will) occur. Even if you only get this far in the book, you’ll gain some valuable insights into how mental models and shared vision can affect actions, or as Senge puts it, “structure affects behavior.” Every manager can get some benefit from this book, if only to see the enormity of the task of changing organizational behavior.

I haven’t the space here to do justice to these two works, but I encourage each of you to find a copy and read them. I’ll be interested to get your comments.

About the Author

Steve Crandall, MCSE, is a principal of ChangeOverTime, a technology consulting firm in Cleveland, Ohio, that specializes in small business and non-profit organizations. He's also assistant professor of Information Technology at Myers College and a contributing writer for Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine.

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