Books: A Simpler Way

I read this book because it was recommended in a class I took in September on “The Role of the Supervisor.” Most of my reading lately has been fiction, and it had been a very long time (probably not since I finished my MBA studies in 1996) that I had read a book on organizational behavior. And I was intrigued by the instructor’s brief description of the authors’ viewpoints about organizations as organisms.

I won’t try to sum up the book’s points, because this review does that better than I probably could. If I had enjoyed reading the book, perhaps I would enjoy waxing eloquent about the ideas expressed in it. But frankly, I really struggled to finish the book before I had to return it to the library.

It’s not that it’s difficult reading, at least not in the way that is usually meant. The words and the style of writing are easy enough to understand. The concepts are not difficult to grasp. I remember reading textbooks for that MBA program that were far harder to read, where I sometimes had to read a passage over and over to understand the meaning.

Perhaps it is because I am relatively comfortable with how companies are usually organized. I may find some rules annoying, and find some procedures illogical. I may find meetings boring. But I generally like the structure provided by organizational charts and a clear chain of command. I have never felt that I was treated like a cog in a machine instead of a person.

I don’t know just what kind of organizations the authors of this book have in mind when they write about trying to make organizations act like machines, or whether the ones I have worked for would be among their primary targets for improvement. I have found that places where I have worked have generally been fairly open to adapting in the creative manner that A Simpler Way advocates. Maybe not in the structure of the entire organization as a whole, but in the day-to-day activities within the workgroup.

So with the authors stressing how wrongheaded management tends to be in trying to force people to act as though they were machines, I felt as though they were attacking an approach to business that I have generally seen in a positive light. I wondered how their ideas could really work in the business environments I have worked in.

That, I think, is my biggest complaint about the book. I remember that when the instructor of that class I took recommended it, she mentioned that it is more abstract, not at all a how-to book. But for me, an important part of arguing for an idea is to show how it works in practice. It’s great to talk about the need to be creative and adaptive, and about how we should try to follow the pattern of how systems develop in the natural world. But until I can see how it relates to work in a manufacturing company or a retail store or a non-profit, I find it hard to be convinced.

I have nothing against any of the ideas presented. I do find fault in the presentation, especially as it seemed quite repetitive. I felt like saying, “I get the idea already. Now show me how it actually works.” Without that, I see little reason to criticize other approaches so severely.

I don’t imagine anyone would disagree that businesses sometimes do treat people like machines. But I also don’t recall any classes or books that recommended doing so. Maybe earlier in the twentieth century, but not in the 90’s, when this book was published. The books that I read recommended creative approaches – and they gave lots of real-world examples of both successes and failures.

So I think I agree with a good deal of what the authors said. I just didn’t think I gained anything much by reading it.

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