Hooray For Hierarchy

The Org argues that companies are pretty good just the way they are. Seriously.

By Sam Grobart

ILLUSTRATION BY BROWN BIRD DESIGN

Most business management books promise something new and radical. “You’ve been doing it all wrong!” they cry, and then propose solutions that will “revolutionize,” “radicalize,” and “disrupt” your business to greatness. They spout fortune-cookie counterintuition like “manage down!” or “the best meeting is no meeting!” Over time, of course, this approach ossifies into little more than a several-hundred-page-long Mad Lib, a series of fill-in-the-blank treatises. Whatever the conventional wisdom is, invert it, select “Print,” send to a literary agent.

Into this noisy, table-overturning crowd step Ray Fisman, a professor at Columbia Business School, and Tim Sullivan, the editorial director of Harvard Business Review Press. Their new book, The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office, is a voice of reasoned analysis amid the airport bookstore barkers.

In The Org, Fisman and Sullivan come to praise the modern-day corporation, not bury it. Their thesis is that companies, as flawed as they may be, are the result of centuries of organizational evolution and really do function better than any radical or quick-fix solution. They’re not without fault or flaw, but they’ve generally become the equivalent of what Winston Churchill called democracy: “the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

The Org attempts to shed some light on how our offices got to where they are: how bosses got caught up in an endless cycle of meetings, how oversight became a soul-crushing regime, and how communication can break down between departments. The book’s goal is to explain these things in the hope that employees and managers can correctly discern what can be improved from the compromises necessary for a company to succeed.

Fisman and Sullivan may lean too heavily on the academy to solve business problems. They use economic game theory to describe the struggles of the boss/employee dependency (“your relationship to your manager is ... what game theorists call a repeated game”) and love citing things like a Stanford-World Bank study of Indian textile mills.

Defending — or at least, accepting — the status quo is not the most scintillating premise. The reason those other shouty, world-changing management books do as well as they do is that, on some level, we crave a clear solution to our frustrations. Fisman and Sullivan face a tougher, more realistic task and pull it off by writing with a breezy and approachable voice. The two work through several examples of how organizations (both for- and nonprofit) function, from the way the Baltimore Police Department incentivizes its officers to fight crime to the value of McDonald’s insistence on conformity to the risks Digital Equipment took when it strayed from standard practices to win a new contract.

Sometimes the conclusions are little more than “this is not awesome, but it’s better than the alternative.” But since the vast majority of us will continue to work for conventional companies, with their conventional compromises and problems, Fisman and Sullivan’s measured approach is far more valuable; the conclusions and insights presented in The Org are ones you can actually use. Less Hollywood blockbuster and more a moody independent film, The Org is incisive on how things actually are, while leaving readers to find the answers.

CEO

“From the corporate jet to the golden handshake, [CEO perks] were all designed with the intention of making CEOs maximize shareholder profits,” write Fisman and Sullivan.

Managers

“Most people who have done time in a cubicle imagine a world without managers as a kind of paradise.” They’re wrong, the authors write — sometimes the solution to problems is “a bunch of MBAs.”

Workers

“If what gets measured gets managed, then what gets managed is what gets done,” they write. “Compensate snowplow drivers for inches of snow cleared instead of by the hour, and they’ll miraculously start plowing snow faster.”

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