I enjoy reading and grasping complicated theses, such as Kenwyn Smith’s intergroup dynamics, or parallel process; however, at times, I also crave simple and elegant arguments. Robert Townsend’s Up the Organization is a dose of simplicity that is the perfect antidote for weeks on Smith’s diet of complexity and convolution.
Townsend was the CEO for Avis for years and lifted the car rental company from obscurity into the #2 giant. He translated his “simple” principles – structuring the organization so that people’s talents would flourish and trusting people to want to work and employ their talents –in a folksy writing style and the resulting slender volume of organizational gems became a cult classic. The content is organized in alphabetical order, from “Advertising” to “Wearing out your welcome,” and each takes up anywhere from half of a page to a “lengthy” five-page thesis on “People.” Townsend intended for the readers to pick any topic at any given time – still true – but he also recommended that you start with the “People” section, because as he puts it, “it’s the place to start.”
What I plan to do for the next few weeks is reflect on a few topics and areas that most resonate with me.
In Townsend’s preface, he urges people to not copy others. “They didn’t get to the top doing things the way they are doing now.” Copying is about noticing only the superficial aspects, which everyone can do. When everyone copies the same thing, where would be the unique advantage? In addition, by the time many of the great products or “excellent” organizations get noticed, (1) they may be at their peak and on their way downward, and (2) that which made them “great” was already in the distant mirror that even they themselves might not see very well.
This doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t try to study why and how others do well. But the keys are in the “why” and “how,” and therein lie the major obstacles. I would add that understanding the why’s would make knowing the how’s a little easier. Most organizations seem to lose sight of why they are there in the first place, and so I would contend that management at all levels should keep that in mind often. And yet…stubbornly holding onto the original purpose can also render the organization obsolete if the organization doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on in the environment (physical, social, and political). Apple may be a great place to work and its products are hot right now, but the power of the cliché, “sitting on one’s laurels” is universal and indiscriminant.
In one of my researched cases, an immigrant Chinese divorced woman owned a small Chinese restaurant on the edge of the local Chinatown. It was very much like every other good eats in every such Chinatown, and her business was moderate and her profit margin precarious. She herself eventually noticed that what she was doing was what every Chinese restaurant practiced: A busy menu with low prices. She thought about what would really attract her: A simple and easy-to-read menu offering quality food and coffee that she liked. She made a 180-degree turn on her business. She invested in the siphon type of brewing coffee, very unique at the time. All her service pieces were good looking (and purchased at wholesale cheap prices), and the presentation of her food and coffee was lovely. The café was clean and decorated with modern posters. She kept her menu simple and doubled her prices. Immediately, she lost almost of all her Chinese and Asian customers, but she gained many young non-Asian professionals, of whom many became regulars. Her café was rated #1 in the local magazine for a few years. It was one of my most dramatic cases.
This restaurant owner would have loved Townsend’s simple words. However simple his words are though, we need to think them through for ourselves.
I did read “People” first. Again, much of it was common-sense, reflecting simple but oh-so-neglected principles. The assumptions most organizations ascribe to, and against which Townsend riled, are based on the beginning of industrial machine age and sometimes called “Theory X”: (1) People hate to work. (2) Therefore, one needs to threaten people with punishment in order to “drive” them. (3) By and large, people prefer to be told what to do. Refuting this set of assumptions was part of what motivated me to write this blog, and I discussed these very points in my first entry. What Townsend embraced were the total opposite of these assumptions, delineated in “Theory Y:” 1. “Work” is as natural to people as rest and play. 2. They don’t need to be threatened; if they find worthy causes to commit to, they’ll drive themselves. 3. But they will commit only to the extent that their development needs are met.
These days, most organizations, or I should say decision-makers, seem to be erecting as many roadblocks and speed bumps as possible for others. I accept that they don’t do this consciously and intentionally; in fact, their decisions are usually under the banner of “for the good of the organization.” Further, this is done usually in conjunction with managers’ losing sight of what the organization’s true purpose is. Townsend reminds readers, especially managers, to pay attention and find those “idiotic” practices. However, what’s “idiotic” to person A might be a sacred cow to person B. Reminding oneself what the organization’s purpose is may help solve only some of these differences. It is always more complicated than “common sense” would dictate.
Townsend’s description of Theory Y is very much in concert with Dan Pink’s exquisite and persuasive presentation on “motivation.” I am also mindful of Townsend’s words on motivation: You can’t motivate people. I think Mr. Pink would heartily agree with that. It’s all about how you structure organizations. The best way to structure organizations in which people can motivate themselves is to allow them: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Give people these, and they’ll help make organizations grow, and grow healthily.
Simplicity and elegance can only provide the foundation. Operating an organization is complicated; however, focusing on and remembering some basic principles can go a long way to success. A good mantra: People and their relationships are the most important assets for all organizations.
Till Mother’s Day,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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