Top positive review
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Deceptively straightforward; potentially powerful
on 24 August 2013
I was won over by this book. Lencioni reminds me of Marshall Goldsmith ('What Got You Here Won't Get You There' etc.): he offers a great deal of sound, straightforward advice about how to operate successfully within organisations, much of which is in fact based on very insightful observations, based on a lifetime in consultancy, of the way in which people in organisations actually behave and, more importantly, interact.
The book's first chapter is a bit of a hard sell. No shame in that. Lencioni sets out to sell us the idea that organisational health is the most important thing in business - no, I mean THE most important thing. Really, really the most important thing. Did you know that organisational health will give your business a competitive advantage? I mean a really HUGE competitive advantage? That organisational health trumps everything else in business?
You get the point (you really do!) - the chapter reads like one of those maddeningly successful direct marketing mailshots that has you running up a mental white flag by page three and agreeing that, on reflection, your life has indeed been blighted by the absence of whatever they are selling and that you absolutely must ACT NOW to remedy the situation. But Lencioni soon begins to spell out what a healthy organisation would look like and to set out his action plan for improving the health of any organisation, and I began to be won over.
Many books about organisational behaviour offer a brilliant analysis of what is wrong with the organisation and suggest some profound changes that are needed to remedy this, but leave one wondering just how many companies will actually change their behaviour as a result, no matter how compellingly the author has spelled out the advantages. It's not that the new ideas don't make sense, or are not genuinely exciting, it's just that they often require truly fundamental changes to the way that organisations are structured and run. What Lencioni recommends, in contrast, is relatively simple, clearly understandable, and eminently do-able. I found myself recognising all too many of the aspects of unhealthy organisational behaviour but, more importantly, seeing also how Lencioni's recommended solution was sane, practical and achievable. Although Lencioni is not, on the face of it, proposing a radical overhaul of organisational structure, his programme for a healthier way of conducting business would, in fact, have quite profound effects on how organisations are run.
Lencioni starts with 'building a cohesive leadership team', and has interesting things to say about how this involves building a high degree of trust among the leadership team, which involves a greater degree of interpersonal reaction than is usually considered necessary or even desirable. Senior teams tend to relate to each other at the 'purely professional' level, representing their own departmental interests, vying with each other for the boss's attention and focussing mainly on achieving their own agenda while looking more brilliant than their colleagues. Exactly, says Lencioni. Teams like this are not learning from each other, and are certainly not working together to achieve the overall objectives of the organisation. To do this, the leadership team need to be more aware of each other's personal strengths and weaknesses, more prepared to engage in constructive criticism and debate and, as a result, to be individually a little more vulnerable than we are usually comfortable with. Lencioni successfully paints an appealing picture of the benefits of a genuinely cohesive leadership team, working together to achieve common objectives, holding other team members accountable, playing to each other's strengths and reminding each other, in an intelligent and constructive way, of their individual weaknesses.
And then, of course, the team needs to be clear on exactly what those common objectives are: we need 'clarity'. His recommendation for finding clarity is to answer six fundamental questions: Why do we [the organisation] exist? How do we behave? What do we do? How will we succeed? What is most important right now? Who must do what? It's a good and deceptively simple-looking list. The first three of those questions are actually very hard to answer, and any team that knew and fully agreed on all of the answers would indeed have a considerable advantage over the great majority of their competitors.
Lencioni illustrates his points with down-to-earth, recognisable and relevant illustrations from his consulting experience. Having argued for a cohesive leadership team and the need to achieve clarity, the last two points in his four-point action plan seem a little like over-egging the pudding: 'overcommunicate clarity' and 'reinforce clarity'. But the sections addressing these ideas continue to offer sensible, practical suggestions about how to spread a clear understanding of core objectives throughout the organisation and to ensure that the clarity persists.
I especially liked Lencini's focus on 'what is the most important thing right now'. It is difficult, but literally invaluable, for organisations to be clear on 'why we exist', 'how we behave' and 'what we do' but even with clarity on these defining ideals, organisations are often still derailed by failing to focus enough on some fundamental issue that threatens their very existence. 'The high point of being a leader in an organisation is wrestling with difficult decisions and situations,' writes Lencioni, while pointing out that, in practice, leadership teams tend to try to deal with such fundamental, life or death business issues far too superficially in a badly structured meeting that is attempting to achieve several other things at the same time.
His recommendation for a programme of meetings with different purposes and functions is, again, pragmatic and entirely sane. What, as Lencioni says, could be more exciting than addressing a core business issue in a constructive and focussed 'adhoc topical meeting' with a team of committed colleagues, and without anything else on the agenda but finding a solution to the particular business problem? And how often in business does that actually happen?
A deceptively simple and very readable book that offers achievable suggestions for changes to our working practises that would have profound effects on our effectiveness - and on the satisfaction that we get from our working lives.
Jonathan Gifford - author of '100 Great Business Leaders'