There’s always a thin line between books that have mass appeal and those that are considered serious in their academic insight. It takes a unique voice to walk along the thin border between trivia and irrelevance. Those authors that can walk this line and find this sweet spot are few and far between. In my opinion they include, among others, such writers as Edgar Schein, Peter Senge, and Jon R. Katzenbach.
Katzenbach’s work stands out because it has the ability to operate in the world of what academics call, “the mesa level,” that combines individual psychology with organizational structure. More specifically, it explores the social psychology of teams and groups. In his recent work, Leading Outside the Lines, written with Zia Kahn, Katzenbach continues this tradition of examining the meso level with good writing and sharp academic insight.
Organizational writers can roughly be separated into two groups. One group adopts the position that organizations should be structured and formal in order to become optimally productive. The other group declares that formalism kills creativity, random-interaction, and off-the-cuff action. They feel that organizations should be informal in order to boost performance. In Leading Outside the Lines Katzenbach and Kahn take a different stance. They argue that an organization should adapt both formal and informal strategies to get the best results.
Walk into Home Depot with a question and chances are you’re going to leave with an answer. It’s the “Home Depot Way” and it is what made Home Depot the most “successful building materials chain in history.” The Home Depot Way is an outcrop of what Katzenbach and Kahn believe to be the right mix of both formal and informal organizational design. Workers were given a formal structure to work within, but were encouraged to draw on their own experiences and knowledge to help customers. They were told to problem solve and help, not sell and worry about targets. The atmosphere created a dedicated, highly-social, team of home repair experts. Staffers relished the opportunity to solve problems autonomously while working within a formalized retail structure. It’s a nice example of how formal and informal strategies can motivate people to do a good job.
Balancing formal and informal methods isn’t always easy and isn’t always the obvious solution. Katzenbach and Kahn know that leaders need to push change at both the individual and organizational level and oftentimes the path isn’t clear. Leaders frequently have to ask themselves if they should stress formal or informal policies. They know that their decision could be the difference between failure and success. It’s not a simple call.
Katzenbach and Kahn offer real strategies, exercises, and compelling case-studies to help leader’s best resolve the formal-informal question. They push for autonomy while stressing peer-to-peer review and formal discussions. They embrace the problem solving abilities of informal organizational cultures and propose guidelines that can keep everyone on course. They welcome formal orders if they are leveraged with informal networks and get people talking organically.
It would have been interesting of Katzenbach and Kahn looked more at social media and its role in creating formal and informal organizational networks. In a world where many organizations are developing their own social media bases, it would be relevant to look into ways leaders can motivate performance and get things accomplished in a famously informal framework. Still, leaders who work with these problems can still learn a lot form Katzenbach and Kahn.
If you’re interested in learning the concrete steps you need to take in order to create a mixed organizational culture Katzenbach and Kahn won’t let you down. Their compelling thesis is presented clearly and backed up with illuminating case studies, stories, and interviews. It needs to be read by leaders who are endeavoring to adapt their organizations to new, ever-changing, realities.