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Managing in Complexity: A book review of Flat Army

By Clark Quinn / April 2014

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The message is reaching a crescendo: Organizations have to change! We hear on many sides the cry that organizations need to be more agile, facilitating innovation and getting the best out of their people to create a compelling customer experience. Yet this doesn't happen with old-school leadership, instead people need to see higher purpose and be freed to pursue their goals. All well and good, but just how do you do this? What does this mean for management?

Dan Pontefract takes this challenge head on in his book Flat Army: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization. He first lays out the reasons the world is changing and why we need new organizational approaches. Then he lays out a series of models that help individuals understand what it takes to manage in this new era, and presents rich examples to illustrate what's meant. It's clear this is the product of a lot of thoughtful and well-intentioned work.

The book draws upon a wide variety of conceptual influences, including the power of networks and interpersonal interaction, as well as the value of engagement.

This isn't an easy read. The book is dense, not only copiously supplied with examples, but elaborated literarily with historical background. While eloquent, it can interfere with getting to the core message. And the details are considerable. The "Connected Leader" framework has three stages, each with five elements. The "Participative Leader Framework" has four elements around two pairs of components. The "Collaborative Leader Action Model" has six elements. Not to mention the "Pervasive Learning Model" with its three elements. This is a lot to keep in mind! A companion piece focused on the core models would be welcome, particularly with tools to assess yourself on the components and then developmental recommendations to improve.

Yet this level of detail is plausibly necessary and the contents are valuable. So it is easy to understand that all these elements contribute and, if not aligned, will undermine the effectiveness. This is a book that can help people in traditional management models transition to more enlightened approaches. His connected leader framework elaborates the types of behaviors leaders need to exhibit. Covering three phases of "Becoming, Being, and Beyond," he indicates specific characteristics that help you become, act, and self-develop as a leader. His Participative Leader framework lays out ways in which individuals should act, both the manager and the members of the team. Finally, the Collaborative Leader Action Model outlines steps to follow in making decisions and moving forward. It's not clear that there isn't some overlap (e.g. are "developing" from the Connected Leader and "educating" from the Participative Leader really that much different?), but the thoroughness is preferable to the alternative.

Of particular interest is the chapter on learning at the speed of need. Pontefract aptly points out learning is not an event but a process, and extends learning beyond formal to informal and social. I wish there'd been a bit more emphasis on performance instead of just learning (performance support really isn't addressed), but this is a book about management, not the training or learning and development department.

Another nice element is a chapter covering the various social tools and their particular contribution. Under categories of communication, content, and context, he elaborates how different tools help individuals cooperate, collaborate, and contribute. For those who are just coming to grips with social media, this is invaluable.

The book is also elaborately researched. There are no less than 16 endnotes on any chapter, and an average of 20. The references range from ancient Greece to the most modern writings, and cover a wide range of topics from economics to psychology, technology, business, and leadership.

He doesn't leave this discussion abstract. In addition to punctuating his prose with examples, he provides a chapter just discussing a number of case studies that illustrate ways in which organizations have put in place practices that map to his models. He also provides a chapter about implementing a flat army, and explaining what sorts of approaches might make sense in different organizations.

This isn't just theorizing; Pontefract's had the chance to develop and test his models at TELUS, and has been recognized by Chief Learning Officer. I'm not a management guru, but I have looked at what it takes to get organizational culture right, and what's presented here resonates. Overall this is a clear guide to the necessary components and rigor to lead organizations in a way that couples optimum performance with continual innovation. And that makes this an essential read.

About the Author

Clark Quinn, Ph.D., helps organizations use technology aligned with how we think, work, and learn to achieve better outcomes. An internationally known consultant, Dr. Quinn has authored four books on learning technology and keynotes regularly. He previously taught at the University of New South Wales and has served in leadership positions in several new media and learning organizations. Clark works with Fortune 500 companies, education, government, and the not-for-profit sectors through Quinnovation, tweets as @quinnovator, and blogs at learnlets.com.

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2014 Copyright held by the Owner/Author. Publication rights licensed to ACM. 1535-394X/14/03-2608846 $15.00

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2608846



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