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4 September 2016

Book Review: The Heretic’s Guide to Management

The Heretic's Guide To Management: The Art of Harnessing AmbiguityThe Heretic's Guide To Management: The Art of Harnessing Ambiguity by Paul Culmsee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

TL/DR - It’s a great, entertaining book on managing people in a complex world. Buy it and read it today.

I am really happy Paul and Kailash wrote a follow up to their 2011 book The Heretic's’ Guide to Best Practices. That was a book with great storytelling weaving together 50 years of management academia.

It told the story of how work is inherently complex and you can’t just treat it like a game with a simple rule book. They showed how and why the simplistic approach to work of best practices is antithetical to actually doing good work together.

I read that Heretic’s guide enjoying the book as a bringing together and sorting of a bunch of ideas I was already familiar with. They created a great reference book showing the history of good and bad management ideas that I could point people at. It encapsulated for me years of learning that I had acquired through research, conservation and study. Now it was much easier to get people to read the book and they could catch up in hours or days.

Amusingly, at the end of the Best Practices book they broke the promise of the title in a way typical of both their larrikin senses of humour. They shared a best practice with us for dealing with complex social systems. (I won’t share it here. Read the book.)

This new book is also a good read. It’s full of humour and anecdotes, but is backed with an oblique and deep academic pedigree. Kailash and Paul know how to look beyond the business bestseller list when they research. They follow the academics and they check the academic theory against their own extensive experiences. This adds up to a well researched and entertaining story that you know you can work with.

Once again this book kicks off with a sharp and pointed criticism of best practices, this time in the guise of management models. They show how you can quickly establish your own management framework in four easy steps. This is done tongue firmly in cheek to arouse your natural skepticism about snake-oil dealers peddling certification schemes.

(As if YOU would be suckered, dear reader. You’re one of the smart ones.)

Having you in on the joke, they then proceed to take you on a tour of how our brains manipulate us when we aren’t expecting it; name-checking lists of cognitive biases, provoking us with statements designed to generate an emotional response in you to what they write, until eventually settling down and getting to the heart of this book's idea.

The big idea of this book is about how we deal with uncertainty and the middle section spends quite a bit of time addressing how you and I handle ambiguity. It's compelling stuff and it resonates.

But so what? Is this just another book about complexity? Interesting but of what practical value? Kailash and Paul are all about the pay-off. The author's solution is to recommend we managers use ambiguity to our advantage, even if we don’t always embrace it with love in our hearts.

The last part of the book then follows the precedent of it’s predecessor and ironically provides us with a management supermodel that provides tools for managing (manipulating) people at work by amplifying or diminishing ambiguity.

Once again, the book is an excellent read. It is more engaging and fun to read than many other business books. Both the authors have a perverse sense of humour. Both are deeply skeptical of the fads of the management consulting industry and both are great storytellers. As with the first book I now have a concise repository of a number of important and useful ideas that I can refer people to.

In fact, I like this book better than the first (and I liked the first a lot.) This one is shorter, more to the point, and funnier.

When I read this book I instantly wanted to get a handful of my friends and colleagues to go buy it, and I have bought a couple of copies for people. I highly recommend you go buy it and read it also.


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