Books : reviews

Michael D. McMaster.
The Intelligence Advantage: organizing for complexity.
Butterworth-Heinemann. 1996

rating : 6 : unfinishable
review : 11 February 2010

Can we apply ideas from complexity theory to organisations and corporations, to make them more flexible and agile in our rapidly changing world? McMaster attempts to show how we can.

I came to this book really wanting to learn from it. In particular, I wanted to see if it would give me information that I could apply to doing scientific research, specifically, research into complexity, in a typically self-referential way. After all, if we really believe this complexity stuff, we should be using it ourselves, shouldn't we?

Despite my hopes, hopes that were buoyed up by the preface describing time spent at the Santa Fe Institute, I was left disappointed. In fact, I gave up at the end of Chapter 6, slightly less than halfway through. My problem is that there is very little concrete in here. The prose is high level, and doesn't provide me with anything to ground it in. Let's take some specific examples. Here's a paragraph from the chapter on "Leadership".

pp69-70. Leadership is not easy and requires courage. But let's consider the path that will generate the least resistance. A leader awakens to a greater possibility for her or his corporation. There is a series of events that make pursuit of that realization seem possible. There is a process of education and learning which suggests a way forward. And there is a time of development and integration of ideas before action is taken. The length and intensity of this period varies for each individual, but at some point one leaps into action and that leap is always taken without knowledge of all of the components of the path, or the exact outcome. Individuals must go through this process if they are to become leaders.

Now, that would be okay if it were the introductory paragraph, leading on to specifics. But every paragraph is at this level of abstraction.

Well, okay, not every paragraph. There are a few scattered boxed anecdotes, showing how these things happen in reality. Here's one, from the same section:

p70. A chemical plant with long-standing severe conflicts between management and union was about to close its doors. The plant was now half its original size and it was supposed to be shut down in the next couple of years.
     The current plant manager committed himself to a transformation, as had other managers of this same plant over the past few decades. This transformation, unlike the earlier attempts, began to demonstrate a new kind of leadership.
     After a series of educational and developmental sessions, a small group of self-selected people started taking action---to show by going first. This group was made up of the plant manager, a few junior managers, a couple of supervisors, and a few of the direct labor force.
     Very few of those exhibiting leadership had appeared as leaders previously. In fact, a few had been leading troublemakers. None of the other official leaders demonstrated authentic leadership in any way, including senior management and senior union officials.
     Within six months, the transformation was complete and the decision to close was reversed. Within the year management began to install new processes at that location.

So ... what? If this is the specific example, where are the details? What specifically was the transformation that the manager committed himself to? What specifically went on in the educational and development sessions? What specific actions did the self-selected group take? Given the complete transformation, what was the final situation? Etc, etc. In fact, the whole tone of this example is so bland, it remined me irresistably of that style of content-free marketing-speak so brilliantly parodied in the chicken joke.

There is just nothing here for me to get my teeth into. In order to reason by analogy, to take something from one domain and apply it in another, I need details of the analogous domain. Nothing for me here (at least, not up to chapter 6). I need to keep looking.