A Skimmer's Guide to the Latest Business Books
The book: The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management, by Art Kleiner; Jossey-Bass; August 2008. This rich social and intellectual history describes the post--World War II assault on rigid, numbers-obsessed corporations by idealists, humanists, and freethinkers, many of whom go down in flames.
The big idea: "A heretic is someone who sees a truth that contradicts the conventional wisdom of the institution to which he or she belongs and remains loyal to both entities--the institution and the new truth," writes Kleiner.
No pain, no gain: Heretics is at once a paean to idealism and a grim primer on corporate politics. Radical thinkers are ignored, then lauded, then subverted and shunted aside. How do you spot a true change agent? Look for the guy covered in blood.
The backstory: Kleiner runs the Booz & Co. publication Strategy + Business. Heretics was first published in 1996; this second edition is part of a series of management classics selected by leadership icon Warren Bennis, who is also mentioned prominently in the book.
If you read nothing else: The stories in Heretics should be experienced as a meal, not à la carte. But two chapters that recount battles with insularity are particularly engrossing. "Protesters" (Chapter Four), about the birth of shareholder activism, reminds us that social responsibility--at least the appearance of social responsibility--wasn't always a no-brainer for business. And "Mystics" (Chapter Five), about the origins of scenario planning, describes how a student of Sufi mysticism pried the eyes of Royal Dutch Shell away from its corporate navel and forced it to see the world.
You can skip: Kleiner's energy flags a bit in his treatment of the Toyota Production System, General Electric's Work-Out process for efficient problem solving, and W. Edwards Deming and the quality movement. Fortunately, for many readers this is familiar terrain.
Feeling groovy: Forget management by walking around--how about management by tripping out? In the late '50s and early '60s, Kleiner writes, executives and engineers from a number of companies experimented with LSD on corporate retreats. The drug reportedly improved engineers' ability to solve technical problems and managers' conflict-resolution skills. Heretics is full of surprising stories of corporate flirtation with the counterculture.