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About Zen and the Art of Organising Work

‘Zen’ has a special status for me. It was the first of two ‘lockdown’ books when I like millions of others around the world had too much time on our hands. But most importantly it is the book that I knew I had to write before I died.


That sounds melodramatic, I know. It is my way of saying that it contains the hardest won and most profound insights over the last 20 or so years of thinking and research. And since knowledge has no value if it is not shared, I knew I had to write this book.


That is my perspective. From a reader’s perspective it contains the essence of the ideas of some of the most important thinkers about organisations that you have probably never heard of and are unlikely to ever read, since most of their own output is too eclectic and difficult.


Much of the content is based on the work of Stafford Beer who worked in a field he called management cybernetics, and specifically his Viable Systems Model. The word ‘cybernetics’ has a lot of unhelpful baggage which I need to deal with before we can move on. 


Technically, cybernetics is concerned with circular feedback and causal mechanisms in biological and social systems. The father of the field, Norbert Weiner, characterised it as being about ‘communication and control in the animal and machine’. Beer called it ‘the art of effective organisation’.


I think these definitions capture three important qualities of cybernetics: the simple ideas and mechanisms upon which it is based, its universal relevance, and its applicability to the kind of practical problems that managers face on a day-to-day basis.


I didn’t know anything about cybernetics when I first read Beer’s ‘Brain of the Firm’ as recommended by a German friend. But it was clear to me within 30 minutes of picking the book up that this is what I had been looking for, without realising it, for most of my adult life. It made sense of a wide range of things that I experienced in work but also as a citizen that had puzzled and frustrated me in equal measure. 


But although I knew enough to know that this is what I needed to understand, it was also clear that I needed a lot of help. This led to a PhD, after which I felt that I had a good enough grasp of Beer’s ideas and enough evidence that they explained why some organisations performed well and others did not…but also why Beyond Budgeting ‘worked’. I also was able to show how Beer’s ideas related to those of later scientists working on more fashionable ideas like complex adaptive systems.


The problem I wrestled with for years is how to communicate such deep and complex ideas in a simple way for curious and intelligent lay people without dumbing them down. I have tried to do this by adopting the same the same approach I took in ‘The Little Book of Operational Forecasting’; by breaking the content up into a series of short ‘lessons’ each of which is accompanied by hand drawn graphics to help make abstract concepts more real.


I’m hoping that what is lost in terms of narrative flow I have compensated for by making the content more digestible. The format also makes it easier to use the book as a source of reference and to dip in and out as the need arises, which is important since I think it is unlikely that any reader will ‘get it’ in one go.


The book has four sections.


1.     Introduction. This section addresses fundamental questions like ‘what are organisations’, ‘‘why do we need them?’ and ‘what kind of problems do organisations often have?’


2.     Structure. This addresses the question of internal and external complexity and how organisations can be structured to help deal with it. It describes Ashby’s Law, the big organising idea behind the ideas in the book and introduces the five subsystems of the Viable Systems Model.


3.     Regulation. This section deals with information flows around the organisational system and how they are used to regulate its activity. The ultimate aim of all activity is the maintenance of organisational viability, which is manifest in its ability to survive and thrive in environments that cannot be predicted. To be able to do this the organisation needs to maintain a set of essential balances with itself and with the environment in the present moment and in the future.


4.     Conclusion. This contains some reflections on how these ideas can be applied.


You can buy ‘Zen and the Art of Organising Work’ through normal retail channels, direct from the publisher or from my bookstore in physical or PDF form. 

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