Davenport & Kirby, McGrath, Mintzberg

Somewhat before Christmas 2018, I took a free, online Coursera course – Bridging the Gap Between Strategy Design and Strategy Delivery.  It’s managed by the Brightline™ Initiative ‘a coalition led by the Project Management Institute together with leading global organizations dedicated to helping executives bridge the expensive and unproductive gap between strategy design and delivery’.  (See my blog on it)

I can’t now remember how I found the course, or what was going on at the time that prompted me to enrol on it.  However, I was in the first cohort of participants.   A few weeks after completing, I got a cheerful email from the Brightline Initiative, saying ‘as a token of appreciation for successful completion of the course Turning Ideas into Results: Bridging the Gap Between Strategy Design and Delivery. You can win three books authored by leading strategy experts – some featured in this course! Brightline is covering the cost of the books and shipping.’ The way of ‘winning’ was to fill in a form saying which books you wanted to receive.  No contest involved.

I’m not sure of the money and motivation behind this largesse but this week my three chosen books arrived: Only Humans Need Apply, The End of Competitive Advantage , Simply Managing.  All I have to do now is read them.

But before doing that I took a look at what they have in common.  Superficially, they have a colon after the main title followed by an explanatory phrase.  They are written by well-known American academics over the age of 60.  They have a detailed reference list.  They have ‘how to’ sections.

I decided not to go down the route of addressing the questions that these observations led me to – Why do book titles go for a colon? Are these books American centric?  How does the experience of academics over 60 inform current thinking?  Which of the references should I pursue?  Should I adopt any of the how-to suggestions?  And so on.  I can’t remember (and the list is no longer available to look at) if there were any non-American, non-academic writers on the list of books to choose from, but another question would be ‘why did I choose these three books?’

Turning to the books’ content, what follows is a bit about each, not from a detailed reading, but from a couple of hours spent flicking through them, landing on various pages and seeing what I found out ‘how to …’.

Davenport & Kirby (2016) ‘Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines’.  Davenport and Kirby’s primary idea is based on the question how to take seriously the threat of ‘computers coming after your job’.   They tell us that ‘instead of asking what work will machines take away from us next, we need to start asking what work will machines enable us to take on next?’  This type of work they describe as ‘augmentation of human work by machines … in which humans and computers combine their strengths to achieve more favourable outcomes than either could alone.’  They say that ‘augmentation spots the human weakness or limitation and makes up for it … without pain to the worker.’   (Take a look at the test at Ford of exoskeletons)

In the chapter ‘Don’t Automate, Augment’, they advocate five strategies – stepping up, stepping aside, stepping in, stepping narrowly, stepping forward – for ‘humans who are willing to work to add value to machines, and who are willing to have machines add value to them’.  They illustrate the five steps by looking briefly at how insurance underwriters, teachers and financial advisors are taking them, before moving to a full chapter on each step.  They argue that complacency in the face of machines is not an option. ‘But despondency isn’t required either’:  there is a role for individuals to take decisions on how to deal with advancing automation, and a role for ‘governments, other convening bodies, and the experts who advise them’ to do similarly for society.  This is an upbeat book and I’d like to believe that the dedication their book opens with comes to fruition.  ‘Both us dedicate this book to our kids’ – Julia’s ‘who will make the world a better place’ and Tom’s who will ‘continue to find interesting and useful work’. We all need to help them make it so.  I’ve learned how to feel a bit more optimistic about automation.

Mintzberg, (2013), Simply Managing: what managers do and can do better This book is a ‘substantially condensed and somewhat revised version’ of Mintzberg’s 2009 book Managing. It’s in large print with wide line spacing, lots of sub-headings and bold type sentences that ‘summarize the key points in this book and so serve as a running commentary throughout’.  So excellent for someone who doesn’t really want to (or have time to) read much. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your point of view) the sections do not have an estimated read time.

There are 6 chapters covering: managing beyond the myths; managing relentlessly; managing information, people, action; managing every which way; managing on tightropes; managing effectively.  I felt exhausted just skimming the chapter headings.  However, I plunged into the section ‘The Enigma of Order’ (in the chapter on tightropes) which considers the conundrum, stated in bold type, ‘How to bring order to the work of others when the work of managing is itself so disorderly?’ Mintzberg’s advice is that managers deal with this ‘by nuancing its two sides.  They have to weave back and forth between letting the chaos reign and reigning in the chaos.’  OK good.  Mintzberg briskly moves on to the next section.  ‘The Paradox of Control’.  I turn to McGrath’s book.  I’ve learned how to convert a thorough book into a soundbite book.

McGrath (2013), The End of Competitive Advantage.  The opening pages of this are devoted to 11 people (10 men/1 woman) praising the book.  Point taken, it must be worth reading.  McGrath ‘takes on the idea of sustainable competitive advantage’ in its place she offers ‘a perspective on strategy that is based on the idea of transient competitive advantage’ together with ‘a new playbook for strategy’.  Wisely, she tells us that ‘The ability and willingness to seek out actual information, confront bad news, and design appropriate responses is critical’… ‘The learnability principle emphasises continual investment in people, even if one doesn’t know exactly what they will be doing.  And combating the tendency to seek only positive news that confirms existing assumptions is critical’ (too).

She is of the view that we need to rethink all the assumptions we hold around organisations being ‘long-lived and their advantages sustainable’.  She offers practical advice to individuals who agree with her that we are in a ‘transient-advantage’ economy.  Take a look at her checklist for preparing yourself for the transient-advantage economy.  It appears as a quiz in her book, along with a discussion of the questions.   If you don’t want to read the book, you can listen to a 60-minute webinar of her talking about it.  I’ve learned more on how to question organisational assumptions around sustainability and got some helpful tools/resources to do this as well.

Have you read any of the three books?  What’s your view of them?  Let me know.