A classic, a zinger, and a dog

Some while ago I promised Steve Freeman a review of a big pile of books on my reading list. First instalment here - feedback on not one, but three books.

Though dating from 1989, Laurence M Miller’s Barbarians to Bureaucrats: Corporate Life Cycle Strategies is a timely classic. Miller draws on the history of civilisations (quoting extensively from Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History) to identify six stages in corporate life - essentialy six different styles of leadership: Prophet, Barbarian, Builder/Explorer, Administrator, Bureaucrat, Aristocrat. Decline sets in at the Bureaucrat stage: if organisations are to avoid the inevitable twilight, the Synergist Prescription must be followed.

It’s a classic of what we’d now recognise as situational leadership. To make sense and act effectively, you have to know what sort of world you’re in, and the (metaphorical) association of stages of corporate growth to the rise and fall of civilisations lets Miller draw some powerful parallels. There are good stories - in retrospectives I’ve already used the tale of Alexander the Great, who visited his wounded troops after battle and had them tell him the stories of how they fought, and how they received their wounds. Storytelling as a tool for remembering, re-living, and bonding, a very human social tradition that we try to draw on to make retrospectives effective.

Miller’s Synergist musings take in case studies from a number of companies, reminding us that what we recognise as effective agile practice now is not at all new:

At Honda, everyone is a member of a team, which is composed of fifteen to twenty associates who work in a common area. The team … meets every morning at six-thirty. The day’s work is discussed, and feedback on the previous day’s quality is given. Any problems, changes or concerns are shared during the meeting.

Discussion of synergist organisational culture centres around five S’s - Structure, Systems, Skills, Style, Symbols. There’s plenty of literature and practice around the first three, but I like the elevation of Style and Symbol to a level at which we can think about them and use them in shaping organisations.

Read this if you find yourself in a large and slow organisation, and use it to make sense of the landscape, influence where you can, and - if need be - strengthen your resolve to move on.

Book 2: Halting State, by Charles Stross. Funny, lively, very hip and - as an extrapolation from now, very believable. The book traces the causes and consequence of a robbery from a bank in an online game, switching between the perspectives of the three main characters - the Edinburgh police sergeant suddenly and dramatically in over her depth, the forensic accountant/recreational swordswoman brought in to audit the bank online, and the games programmer hired as a native guide. Twists aplenty, a nice take on the politics of a newly independent Scotland, great one-liners, technologically sound (Stross has worked as a developer and as a technology journalist).

Book 3 … actually I won’t talk about this, because I can’t in all fairness find anything good to say. It’s a book about enterprise adoption of agile, and it reads as if written by L. Ron Hubbard. Unnecessary, almost entirely wrong, and I wish Amazon gave refunds…

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