Book review: Uncommon Sense

Kai Peters reviews Uncommon Sense, Common Nonsense by Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles. He agrees the knowledge economy requires new ways of working, but we still haven't worked out what they are.

by Kai Peters
Last Updated: 01 May 2012

Uncommon Sense, Common Nonsense: Why some organisations consistently outperform others, by Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles

I have a lot of sympathy and respect for Goddard and Eccles' intentions. As they state in their preface, they have set out to write a book that provides innovative ideas and contrarian perspectives to challenge the myriad generic and banal business strategies which exist in many organisations.

Their fundamental premise is that a successful business 'knows something no one else in the market knows'. This can be about a product and its features or about a process. What is important is that, whatever it is, it is not the same as what others are providing and is something that customers want. This can then lead to a natural monopoly, or at least a first-mover advantage.

Throughout the book, the authors point out that imitation and best practice, structure and cost control, excellence and competence, planning and logic, rules and regulations and committees to oversee them - and all the other tools and processes organisations use - can at best produce a 'me-too' player. Only through creative thinking and the 'production of new insights' can true advantage be developed.

Most management processes have their origins in Taylorism and Henry Ford. They are suited to a command and control manufacturing environment in which people fulfil repetitive tasks. But, now we are predominantly engaged in knowledge work. Differentiation requires knowledge, which needs creativity and adaptation, not structure and process. Knowledge development does not understand a nine-to-five working day and, for anyone who has reflected on this, it quickly becomes clear that as managers we do not have much guidance in how to facilitate the development of creative ideas while trying to maintain some illusory semblance of accountability and order.

The book is divided into 74 chapters of 200 to 300 words. Most are prefaced by a quote from a well-respected management thinker: a tribute to or comment on the fact that the authors were 'in on the ground floor' of business education since 'not long after Europe founded its first business schools'.

Some examples of chapter themes: hierarchy is good in stable organisations but not when there is a need for creativity; innovation happens at the periphery; conversations in the lavatory are more productive than those in the boardroom; being 'busy' does not generate good ideas. These chapters leave me with the impression that they were written as blogs or as small pieces for an inflight magazine. I simply cannot get my head around what I am to do with them, except to think 'outside the box'.

The last part places the book in a learning context. Goddard and Eccles posit that it is possible to help organisations develop their creativity through management development interventions. Here, they do not seek to pass on knowledge from one generation to the next but instead want to encourage a discovery process.

Both authors were closely involved in the M-lab, the management lab, at London Business School. Founded in 2006 and run by Gary Hamel and Julian Birkinshaw, the lab sought to identify models of management for the 21st century and to provide management development to help organisations explore this territory.

Goddard and Eccles place tremendous store on taking business people into unfamiliar settings, in the arts, in charities and in other environments. It is not the transfer of specific learning that they seek, but the 'contagious quality of particular people's attitudes, personalities and perspectives'. They deem this to be much more beneficial than the 'industrial tourism' of typical company visits.

If the goal is to generate 'asymmetric knowledge' - the uncommon sense that the authors are searching for, this type of exploration may well help. Alas, to my knowledge, the impact of these visits is not something that has been researched to any extent.

Other approaches, such as innovation through lead users or through the structuring of a setting in which different viewpoints are articulated, have tested positively, so I would encourage Goddard and Eccles to keep at it in their quest for a methodology that genuinely changes the game. In the meantime, their sentiments are well placed and appropriate, if not quite there.

Uncommon Sense, Common Nonsense: Why some organisations consistently outperform others

Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles

Profile Books, £16.99

- Kai Peters is chief executive of Ashridge Business School.

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