Book Review: The Minding Organization


April 2006

Book Review: The Minding Organization

CIDMIconNewsletter Sylvia McCombs, LSI Logic Corporation, Engenio Storage Group

The authors of The Minding Organization caught my interest in the first paragraph of the Prologue where they refer to the state of chaos that many thriving businesses have been functioning in over the last two decades. They share stories of businesses that have survived in spite of chaos because of their ability to adapt. The chaos is attributed, in part, to the climate of constant change, while businesses still manage to reorganize, consolidate, spin off, acquire, or merge with other organizations.

Based on my direct experience and conversations I’ve had with colleagues both in my company and in other organizations and professional groups, I believe that many of us can identify with the authors’ comment about the state of chaos in businesses. Rubinstein and Firstenberg attribute the state of chaos to the complexity and uncertainty of the opportunities in a new and mainly unpredictable global business environment.

Rubinstein and Firstenberg wrote The Minding Organization to describe how organizations and individuals can learn to function on the edge of chaos by embracing all the new opportunities for change that contribute to the chaos. Success is accomplished by an iterative process of revolution and evolution, as leaders follow the directive of the authors’ subtitle, Bring the Future to the Present and Turn Creative Ideas into Business Solutions.

This iterative process and directive have been implemented and tested in many organizations throughout the world. The authors discuss the details of how organizations have benefited as they transformed into what they call a minding organization. “The minding organization behaves like a living organism, in which adapting is central to vitality and survival.” They use the analogy of the human body to define what they mean by a minding organization. For example, if a part of the body is adversely affected by something, say, a burn to the hand, the other hand is aware of it, as are other systems in the body. In other words, the one hand knows what the other hand is doing (experiencing), and it typically learns from that burn (experience) and does not need to repeat the actions that caused it. The burn is communicated to the entire body, and the body reacts accordingly. The body learns from this, and the mind carries that learning into future experiences. Just as the body responds and the mind learns and adapts, our organizations need to establish systems so they can function like a connected, responsive, mindful organism. The authors contend that if organizations do not focus on becoming minding organizations, they will not survive. In a minding organization, not only does the right hand know what the left hand is doing, the right hand can coordinate with the left hand without constantly supervising its actions. The two hands are aware and, therefore, responsive to the other so they can adapt to succeed in a common task (goal).

Because the authors believe that we need to be prepared for even more change, and at a more rapid rate than before, they advocate that the survival of our businesses depends on embracing the fast-paced changes, being responsive to them, thereby, adding to the collective learning. Doing this allows the organization to evolve so it can continue to meet the demands of these fast-paced changes. To prepare to do this, we first must create a collective mind (organism) by collaborating to create and communicate a common purpose, just as the systems within our human organism share the common purpose to adapt and survive.

Creating a common purpose requires that we m ove beyond the hierarchy structure that defines many businesses. “Information in an organization needs to be shared, needs to become part of the collective memory, and can then be the basis of shared perceptions.” This shared purpose, along with a focus on collective memory and responsiveness to customer needs creates a new structure in our organizations. This new structure allows for more decision-making and responsibility throughout the organization, not just at the top levels. Decision-making and responsibility can be shared by all because everyone has the same goal (sense of purpose) and responds accordingly.

To further help understand the differences between the hierarchical business strategy and the minding organizational business strategy, the authors provide an easy to understand analogy. Like all analogies, this can break down as we attempt to apply it literally in our current situations, but if we strive to understand the essence of the analogy, we can see the relationship, albeit not perfectly, to our business experiences and open our minds to the intended message. The analogy is the comparison of two transportation systems: railroads versus taxi cabs.

Railroads provide a very structured system in which the customer must adapt to the service provided by the railroad: prescribed pick up points, routes, destinations, and schedules. In other words, a fixed system that is inflexible and dictated by upper management. Compare this with the taxi cab service. The customer can request a cab at nearly any pick-up point to take them to nearly any destination. The customer has the option to request a certain route, if desired. The customer can schedule what time the cab picks them up so they can arrive at their destination at a desired time. Taxi cab drivers can position themselves in fixed locations that have the potential for a large customer base, or they can choose to randomly cover a certain territory, knowing that they are within a reasonable distance from several customer bases and can immediately respond to a customer call and adjust their route accordingly.

The railroads have a very well-planned strategy; the taxi cab drivers have a very flexible and responsive strategy that is not bound by a tightly prescribed plan of action. The railroad plans are made by the leaders of the organization. The taxi cab routes may have a prescribed plan, but all drivers have the authority and responsibility to alter the plan to respond to customer requests. The drivers can decide to change their route spontaneously without seeking management review or approval because the drivers all share the same sense of purpose: to satisfy customer requirements for the purpose of increasing business. This shared sense of purpose, along with the authority and responsibility to act, allows the drivers to adapt to changes because of an unforeseen situation, such as road construction, traffic jams, or customer requests so the drivers can succeed in providing the required service. The purpose of this analogy is to help us understand the value in changing our business strategies so that we are more responsive and flexible to meet the needs of our customers in our rapidly changing environment.

So, how do the authors propose that we help create a minding organization in which we all have authority and responsibility? As stated in the analogy about the train and taxi cab business strategies, we first need a shared sense of purpose; a shared goal. If everyone understands and strives toward that shared goal, then individuals can respond to customers appropriately, and the other systems in the organization are aware of it because of the collective memory that is established in this minding organization. The authors provide examples of what others have done to change to this new model.

Organizations are questioning models from the past because they are not working in the dynamic environment of today’s businesses. Businesses described in this book have succeeded in creating a minding organization by changing their leadership model. Leaders are learning to create an environment in which the authority and responsibility is shared with those at all levels in the organization, which develops and communicates a shared purpose. This involvement at all levels creates a collective memory as information is openly shared, and this environment nurtures creativity and innovation. Also, leaders and subordinates have worked together to create this new model and have followed the directive in the author’s subtitle by bringing the future to the present. They do this by working backwards from a goal (the shared purpose). Working backwards can force problems to surface earlier so that we can assess them for solutions at the beginning of a project instead of being forced to solve them late in the project because we had not anticipated them. Working backwards actually causes chaos earlier and increases the potential for more order at the end of a project. Those working under older business models are all too familiar with the chaos at the end of projects because of late-arriving problems that they had not anticipated. The authors provide several interesting scenarios describing how organizations have planned backward by thinking back from the goal, thereby understanding more clearly how current activity impacts the future outcome of their projects. This is how they have brought the future to the present.

The concepts and examples in this book are interesting and thought provoking. If you are confronted with a fast-paced, chaotic work environment, you may appreciate the authors’ message in The Minding Organization. CIDMIconNewsletter

About the Author

Sylvia McCombs
Technical Publications Manager
LSI Logic Corporation
Engenio Storage Group

Sylvia McCombs has been in technical communications for 15 years. Her experience includes technical writing, project lead, and management. She earned her bachelor’s degree in technical communications from Metropolitan State University in Denver, Colorado. Sylvia lives in Wichita, Kansas.