I’m always on the lookout for books which challenge how we look at the world which, I’ve realized, rarely come from the incestuous and patronizing world of academia – let alone from the battalions of cheerleaders for “new management thinking”. I should know because I chose, twenty years ago as part of a career change, to undergo a crash course of reading the literature on “change management”. It’s true that I did find some useful stuff (which I summarized on pages 145-165 of my book In Transit) – particularly the (neglected) writings of Robert Quinn – but most material was pretty superficial and I probably got more out of two devastating critiques – Management Gurus – what makes them and how to become one (1993); and The Witch Doctors – making sense of the management gurus (1996)
A month or so I read a really original book - The Puritan Gift (2009) – which told a powerful story of how and why American business had changed its values in the second half of the 20th Century. A book which one of the great management writers of the 20th century - Russell Ackoff - has called
"one of the best books I have ever read in my long life......a social history of the American nation which doubles up as a commentary on management culture"
The argument of the book (written by brothers in their 80s) is that the mid-20th century strength of American business, and the prosperity and cultural confidence that created, was due to key characteristics inherited from the country's founding fathers, the Puritan dissenters, and reinforced by many of the subsequent waves of immigrants.
The Hopper brothers list these characteristics as:
- a sense of moral purpose in life;
- a liking and aptitude for mechanical skills;
- collegiality, giving the group priority over individual interests; and organizational ability.
As they sum up: “The Puritan Gift is a rare ability to create organizations that serve a useful purpose, and to manage them well.”
The book falls into three parts. The first is a history of the early days and heyday of US corporations, which they start with Colonel Roswell Lee's Armory in Springfield, Massachussetts. It demonstrated to many subsequent businesses the importance of technical know-how, it was innovative organisationally, it was an enlightened employer, and was collegial – including outside the boundaries of the Armory itself, sharing know-how and best practice with other gun-makers.
One fascinating chapter describes the transplantation of this American approach to Japanese business through the actions of three communications engineers employed in the MacArthur occupation. The Japanese communications and electronics industry was remade in the image of the best of America, and the Hoppers attribute the success of the consumer electronics industry to the adoption of these management practices. A war-destroyed, impoverished country became the world's second biggest economy in the space of three decades.
Decay set in early, however, and the Hoppers' first villain is Frederick W Taylor. He started the process of turning efficient organisational structures into social hierarchies, with top managers increasingly less likely to be engineers or technicians working their way up from the shop floor.
Business schools continued this evisceration of the actual process of business, creating a professional cadre of managers, superior in status in pay, and with purely financial and abstract knowledge in place of the tacit skills and experience previously displayed by management cohorts. The downfall was completed by the steadily increasing celebration of greed, sucking the moral heart out of American capitalism.
It's hard to disagree with the outlines of this argument, harder to know what to do about it. The final part of the book is a brief attempt to suggest some ideas, with a list of 25 principles of Puritan management. Most of these seem very sensible without setting the heart racing. The key aspect of the Puritan Gift seems to be the sense of purpose. As John Kay has argued (in The Foundations of Corporate Success), a good business is one with a clear sense of purpose. The profits are a by-product, but without the core purpose there is no hope of sustained profitability.
Perhaps a benefit of the crisis is that the penny has dropped with some business leaders. Of course all too many are still driven by short-term financial engineering and their own bonus, linked to the share price. But it could be changing. One encouraging straw in the wind was the declaration recently by Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever, that shareholders after the next quarterly profit were not welcome:“Unilever has been around for 100-plus years. We want to be around for several hundred more years. So if you buy into this long-term value creation model, which is sustainable, then come and invest with us. If you don't buy into this, then I respect you as a human being, but don't put your money in our company.”
(Quoted by Michael Skapinker, FT, 24/11/10)