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Strong on why large organisations are dysfunctional. Vague on the alternative
on 22 February 2012
I confess that I didn't know what "fractal" meant before I bought this book - and the rather obscure title may put some readers off. In fact a fractal is a repeating pattern which, in the context of organisations, means management structures replicated at different levels of the organisation - essentially what the Viable Systems Model is about.
The book is well written - and not too heavily academic - and provides an insightful analysis of why large organisations with traditional "command and control" hierarchies don't work well. In brief, the reasons might be summarised as politics, poor coordination and communication, and competing interests; but Mr Hoverstadt spends several hundred pages discussing the many aspects of dysfunctionality. There is much good stuff there - I experienced a "lightbulb" moment reading the section on performance measures (chapter 9) and the chapter on Managing Change is excellent. However, this is not really what I was looking for in this book. I would have been happy with a one-chapter summary as I have ready many such analyses before and, to be honest, I didn't think that was what this book was meant to be about. For example, there is one chapter on the problems with performance management (appraisal). I have read dozens of similar discussions, and Mr Hoverstadt's ideas to correct these problems are much the same as those elsewhere - they don't relate in any particular way to the Viable Systems Model.
And that, for me, is the problem with this book. There is a great deal on the problems of traditional organisation structures, but that is not what I wanted from this book - there are many such examinations. What I wanted is detail on the Viable Systems Model and how it should work in practice. Sadly, this book is frustratingly vague on this point. We are told that the model comprises a set of management structures at all levels through the organisation, but there is no real detail on what this looks like in practice and how it works. Some case studies of good practice and discussion of how these structures work in real organisations would be really interesting. There are some vague hints in the book but nothing concrete enough to be helpful.
Mr Hoverstadt is clearly a very clever individual, and he writes well, but what I wanted was a book on the Viable Systems Model and how it works in organisations, not a lengthy review of why traditional structures don't work. Sadly, this book fails to make the Viable Systems Model tangible enough for most businesses to understand how they might go about developing such a structure. Disappointing.