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The Org  Stands By the Status Quo for Business Management
By Sam Grobart
January 08, 2013 11:22 PM EST
Photograph by Cameron Davidson/Corbis

Most business management books promise something new and radical. “You’ve been doing it all wrong!” they cry, and then propose solutions that will “revolutionize,” “radicalize,” and “disrupt” your business to greatness. They spout fortune-cookie counter­intuition like “manage down!” or “the best meeting is no meeting!” Over time, of course, this approach ossifies into little more than a several-hundred-page-long Mad Lib, a series of fill-in-the-blank treatises. Whatever the conventional wisdom is, invert it, select “Print,” send to a literary agent.

Into this noisy, table-overturning crowd step Ray Fisman, a professor at Columbia Business School, and Tim ­Sullivan, the editorial director of ­Harvard Business Review Press. Their new book, The Org: The Under­lying Logic of the Office, is a voice of ­reasoned ­analysis amid the airport bookstore barkers.

In The Org, Fisman and Sullivan come to praise the modern-day ­corporation, not bury it. Their thesis is that companies, as flawed as they may be, are the result of centuries of organizational evolution and really do function better than any radical or quick-fix solution. They’re not without fault or flaw, but they’ve generally become the equivalent of what Winston Churchill called democracy: “the worst form of ­government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

The Org attempts to shed some light on how our offices got to where they are: how bosses got caught up in an endless cycle of meetings, how oversight became a soul-crushing regime, and how communication can break down between departments. The book’s goal is to explain these things in the hope that employees and managers can correctly discern what can be improved from the compromises necessary for a company to succeed.

Fisman and Sullivan may lean too heavily on the academy to solve business problems. They use economic game theory to describe the struggles of the boss/employee dependency (“your relationship to your manager is … what game theorists call a repeated game”) and love citing things like a Stanford-World Bank study of Indian textile mills.

Defending—or at least, ­accepting—the status quo is not the most ­scintillating premise. The reason those other shouty, world-changing management books do as well as they do is that, on some level, we crave a clear solution to our frustrations. Fisman and Sullivan face a tougher, more ­realistic task and pull it off by writing with a breezy and approachable voice. The two work through several examples of how organizations (both for- and nonprofit) function, from the way the Baltimore Police Department incentivizes its officers to fight crime to the value of McDonald’s insistence on conformity to the risks Digital Equipment took when it strayed from standard practices to win a new contract.

Sometimes the conclusions are little more than “this is not awesome, but it’s better than the alternative.” But since the vast majority of us will continue to work for conventional companies, with their conventional compromises and problems, Fisman and Sullivan’s measured approach is far more valuable; the conclusions and insights presented in The Org are ones you can actually use. Less Hollywood blockbuster and more a moody independent film, The Org is incisive on how things actually are, while leaving readers to find the answers.

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