Books

Book Review: How to Survive the Organizational Revolution by Ard-Pieter de Man, Pieter Koene and Martijn Ars

How to Survive the Organizational Revolution is a recent book by Ard-Pieter de Man, who is professor of management studies at VU Amsterdam plus Pieter Koene and Martijn Ars, both working in the Dutch practise of PWC. It is a very instructional text aimed at explaining some of the most recent examples of Organisation Models, in the form of a very visual guide, almost a handbook to understand what each model is, what it really means and how they can be implemented.

The approach of the authors is very illustrative. For each model they present what they define an “Information Leaflet”, similar to those found in medicines, highlighting the key components of each model, its advantages and disadvantages. The book contains several case studies, and a few “excursions”: short sections that go deeper in some areas.

The book goes tries to fill a gap left by Laloux’s approach in Reinventing Organisations, whereby the authors identify a weak diagnosis, selective research and a lack of critical thinking as key issues of that work, and that this book tries to remediate.

The Organisation Models presented.

The book analyses in details the following Organisation Models:

  • The Multidimensional Organisation. This is used as a connecting point between old traditional models and new explorations, particularly for very large enterprises, asking also how certain new ways of working, such as Agile, can be scaled.
  • The Spotify Model and its adoption at ING. The dedicated chapter is aligned with my view, whereby the application of the Spotify Model risks often to be a simple rebranding of a matrix organisation.
  • Holacracy with the bol.com case study. Although bol.com does not apply Holacracy in an ideological way (its concept of “sparks” has been simplifying many of the provisions of Holacracy.
  • Platform Organisations focuses on online ecosystems, using Booking.comn as a case study. Prof. de Man is a researcher on platforms development, and this chapter is a distilled version of his approach to the topic.
  • Value Proposition based ecosystems are the second type of ecosystem-based organisation, whereby the partnership element is around a shared value proposition. The example here is given by International SOS.
  • Open Source Organisations focuses on the case of Wikipedia, and how governance works in such an environment.

There is no one best way of organising.

Ard-Pieter de Man, Pieter Koene and Martijn Ars, How to Survive the Organizational Revolution, page 20

For each model, four core components are investigated following the model suggested by Puram, Alexy and Reitzig:

  • How are tasks divided?
  • How are tasks allocated to inviduals?
  • How are rewards provided to motivate people?
  • How is information provided so people can take the right decisions?

If Laloux’s work was surely selective in the type of cases picked my feeling by looking at this list of elements is that the analysis suggested is derived from a traditional organisation narrative deeply rooted in the Discourse of Work as Job. As we have seen, the concept of Tasks is derived from the world of the Industrial Revolution, where the traditional hierarchical bureaucracy is born. My feeling is that, instead, some of the proposed new organisational models need to be interpreted based on different meanings of work, such as that of mastery. The case of Wikipedia is interesting: it’s not possible to truly understand the phenomena by applying classic criteria of task division. That is a network of knowledge sharing, not of efficient task making. Same the logic of Rewards, which in many self-management approaches is bypassed in terms of the move to intrinsic motivation (which is cited in the text).

For each model, also an information leaflet is propòosed in the form a brief table is shown that looks at the following components: Problems Solved, Disadvantages, Suitable For?, Not Suitable For?, Key ingredients, Risks, Leadership. Most of the indications here are interesting and well reflected, while for some there is again the weight of a traditional model perspective.

The Fourteen Conditions that make Self-Organization Work.

An entire chapter is dedicated to the topic of self-organisation (the authors are open in mentioning that they use this term in its amplest form, also including the elements of self-management and self-coordination. It is. Avery interesting chapter, as it focuses well, again, on the transformation needed for a traditional organisation that wants to embark into a transformation towards a new model. The authors identify a number of conditions that should be looked up to enable self-organisation. Particularly when transforming existing traditional organisations, they argue, it is important to be aware of all of these components.

  1. Does your organization have a clear vision that is internalized by people working in the organization? The better internalized a vision is, the less you need managers to coordinate activities.
  2. Are tasks clearly defined and accompanied by an adequate mandate? Without clear tasks, it is difficult for team members to organize their own work.
  3. Do individuals have access to information that helps them to make decisions? A key element: if you require people to make their own decisions, they need to have access to information that helps them make those decisions.
  4. Do they have the tools and knowledge to interpret that information? See the previous point. Having the right information is useless if you don’t know what to do with it.
  5. Are there common building blocks in the organization that ensure alignment? Common building blocks may be processes everybody has to follow, training to standardize skill sets or administrative procedures that have to be used. They ensure consistency.
  6. Are the errors that people in your organization make non-fatal? If an individual error can be fatal, you do not want self-organization. In that case, you want oversight or fixed procedures or a combination of those.
  7. Can existing managerial work be allocated to teams? Managerial work does not disappear. Planning needs to be done, budgeting has to be taken care of, quality control assured and people still need to get hired and fired. Are your teams ready to take this on?
  8. Does team behaviour support self-organization? Team members need to be able to give feedback to each other and to resolve their own conflicts, to name but two elements.
  9. Is knowledge-sharing across teams safeguarded? A downside of self-organization maybe that knowledge is not shared across teams. Look for solutions for that problem, like building an internal social network tool.
  10. Is there low interdependence between teams? When teams depend on the performance of other teams, they need to coordinate with those other teams. The less cross-team coordination, the easier it is to self-organize.
  11. Is there high interdependence within teams? There is no need for teams when people do not depend on each other.
  12. Is feedback organized on a team level? If feedback is only given individually or on a department level, teams will miss out on information necessary for them to adapt their way of working.
  13. Do managers trust teams to solve their own problems? Managers have to give teams space to learn and may need to sit idle while they are desperate to intervene. But having trust in the teams to work out solutions for themselves is the best option to get self-organization going.
  14. Do people want it? No preconditions, process or brilliant IT system can compensate for a lack of motivation of people to work along the lines of self-organization.

Conclusion

The book is a much-needed contribution to the need that many companies have in exploring new organisation models. Bypassing the ideological views that some model-proponents often displays, this book plays the objectivity card of the narrative that there is not a perfect organisation model. Its descriptive structure, and illustrative style, are constructive for those that approach the topic for the very first time and want to know, as business leaders or entrepreneurs, what choices need to be made to evaluate a new form of organisation. I see a connection also with the approach I’m crafting around the Intentional Organisation.

The models proposed are not many. This is not a problem per se; the domain is too vast to be able to analyse each existing model. Plus, the book is correct in pointing out that, ultimately, it is not about choosing a model off the shelf and applying it, but rather finding the mix of ingredients that best fit a specific organisation. The choice of the models seems, however, to fit a search of available cases, rather than looking at the value of each model. I would have expected, for example, more explanation on the differences between Sociocracy and Holacracy.

The chapter on self-organising provides some great points on how to analyse the transition. My concern is that when proposed to a manager of a traditional organisation, rather than being an action list can quickly become an alibi argument for not even trying out. A strong risk, especially as it is my strong opinion that self-organisation and self-management are distinctive characteristics of the organisations better suited to compete in the info-sphere.

One element that the book highlights well in its introduction, is the fact that new organisational forms need to meet institutional demands. On one side we have governments, who are demanding more transparency and clear identification of responsibilities in corporate decisions. On the other a trend that, by pushing collegial decisions, will often go against that governance principle. It’s an element that needs to be considered, although I would rather see this as a way to include institutions in the development of these new forms of organising, rather than simply painting an external contingency.

Overall I found this a very good reading, with the caveats that I mentioned above. I agree with the philosophy that each organisation needs to find its own specific model and that many elements of the old traditional organisation can still apply an appropriate context. However, I feel there could have been a bit more courage in admitting that we are still at the very start of the experiments and that many elements need simply to experiment, without limiting creativity with an excessive backwards-looking sense.

How to Survive the Organizational Revolution
Genre: Management | Rating: 4/5
By Ard-Pieter de Man, Pieter Koene and Martijn Ars
Paperback | 144 pp. | Bis Publisher | 07/07/2020 | 1st
ISBN: 9789063695217
Buy on Amazon

How to Survive the Organizational Revolution Reviews one Goodreads

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Sergio Caredda

Digital Knowmad | Multipotentialite | HR Leader | Transformation Agent | Future of Work thinker | On a mission to re-embed Human into HR.

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