UK: THE BOOK PAGE - IT'S GOOD TO TALK AND TELL STORIES.

UK: THE BOOK PAGE - IT'S GOOD TO TALK AND TELL STORIES. - Professor Sir Douglas Hague, chairman of the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme and former adviser to the PM's policy unit under Mrs Thatcher, reflects upon our lack of communication.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Professor Sir Douglas Hague, chairman of the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme and former adviser to the PM's policy unit under Mrs Thatcher, reflects upon our lack of communication.

Creative Compartments: A Design for Future Organisation By Gerard Fairtlough Adamantine Press; 242pp £17.50.

When I retired from the chairmanship of the Economic and Social Research Council, I wrote several papers criticising both scientists and social scientists for their reluctance to adapt research arrangements to the political and financial pressures imposed on them in the 1980s. One colleague was very irritated. 'Why do you keep attacking social scientists?' he asked. I replied that it was unusual for anyone in a top job in government or business to have the expertise and the enthusiasm needed to explain in public what had been happening in his own and related organisations, and how things might be improved. I regretted how few studies of this kind there were.

Gerard Fairtlough's interesting book is a welcome exception. It throws light on the workings of two organisations of which he was successively chief executive: a large one, Shell Chemicals, and a smaller ground-breaking one, the research-based biotechnology company Celltech.

My biggest anxiety about Creative Compartments is with the title. 'Compartments', writes Fairtlough, 'are groups of people who stick together for a long time and talk to each other a great deal'. Understanding how compartments are to operate will be crucial if we are to design and run the increasingly decentralised organisations of the 21st century. People must learn how to use compartments in order to remain coherent and effective.

My worry is that the notion of the compartment exaggerates the benefits of self-contained groups. It also underrates the problems they face if they are not open enough to outside activities and influences. The analogy of the old-fashioned railway compartment is revealing, since it was cut off from outsiders whenever the train was moving. The parallel danger of the organisational compartment is that it may be least open to outside influence when external change is most rapid, and outside contact therefore most necessary. Unless organisational groups, large or small, can handle contacts across their boundaries - as well as within them - they will find survival difficult in a complex world.

In universities - even in business schools - the compartment has become a trap. Overspecialised scholars relying on other scholars for ideas, and ways of spreading them, will face increasingly powerful competition from knowledge businesses. Clever entrepreneurs will force academics to open their ivory towers to new thinking. Fewer conventional businesses are similarly isolated, although too many of them still are.

A key theme of Fairtlough's book is that a successful career in management must be a learning journey, because people and organisations can change only if they learn. Yet learning is not easy. Too many of us pretend that it is. An intriguing indicator is how few managers on development programmes bother to make notes. Of course handouts are fine, but learning is essentially personal and I often wonder what proportion of the lessons available from management programmes really are learned by participants. However good their memories, most of them create too little material of their own to read again and digest when the programme is over.

I have similar questions about learning from everyday work. Do we make and keep enough notes to think about later - even if we are prepared to make thinking time available to ourselves? Too many of us are macho managers who regard busy-ness as an end in itself. We deny ourselves time for reflection. We fail to assimilate ideas like those which Fairtlough collected on his own long journey - during which he was strongly influenced by contacts and reading and face-to-face discussion with colleagues and gurus.

The lessons of our journeys must be shared. Everyone in an organisation feels - even if unconsciously - the need to understand how he or she fits into the larger whole, and what a changing world means to the individual. Rightly, Fairtlough ends with the theme that leaders - both organisational and national - must help their followers to understand the direction in which they are being led. This is what people mean when they ask John Major to provide leadership. Ross Perot understood this much: 'We owe it to the American people to explain to them in plain language where we are, where we are going and what we have to do'.

The most powerful kind of plain language is a story. Therefore leaders must learn to be story tellers. This message is analysed in another recent title, Howard Gardner's Leading Minds, published by Basic Books. Gardner's interest is in 'ordinary minds and extraordinary minds and the links between them'. He believes that one challenge for leaders has grown steadily with the spread of specialised education since 1945.

Thus today's leader has to tell stories which make sense to people educated in very different ways - from shop assistants, say, to nuclear physicists. Hyper-specialised education makes it more difficult to match stories to both ordinary and extraordinary minds. In business, the audiences which managers have to address are often smaller and less diverse than those of politicians, but the conclusion is the same. However large or small their leadership role, leaders - if they are to be successful - must become effective storytellers.

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