Dan Pontefract’s Flat Army: A Review

Flat Army: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization is an excellent new book by Dan Pontefract  It “arms you with powerful tools for overcoming resistance to change and creating a culture of collaboration, engagement, and employee empowerment.” The book offers an integrated framework integrating collaboration, open leadership, technologies, and connected learning. It provides useful ways to flatten your organizational pyramid and engage with your people in more collaborative and productive ways without undermining management’s authority.

I have known Dan Pontefract and his excellent work for several years through his blog.  He is the Head of Learning & Collaboration at TELUS. Dan is responsible for the overarching leadership development, learning and collaboration strategy for the company. Here he implemented the strategy set forth in this book to make significant changes in the 40,000 person organization.

The organization writes on its blog. “Thanks to the remarkable efforts of Dan and his team, we’re moving beyond traditional models of learning and leadership at TELUS towards more of social, informal and participatory framework.” This is a goal that all organizations should be aiming for in today’s market conditions and opportunities. The useful ideas in the book will help you achieve these goals.

Dan explains the title as not a reference to war but from a medieval Latin term, armata, used first in 1533 to depict a fleet of things moving together. He further explains that the essence of an army is “a group of people striving, leading together to achieve a common goal.” This is what you want your company to become. For most large organizations that I have seen that would require a complete transformation. Almost every one I have observed is a group of people, each after their own agendas, even if it conflicts with the overall goals of the organization.

I really like historical contexts. Dan also offers the origins of the concept of hierarchy. The term dates back to the 14th century and it combines the Greek terms for “holy” and “ruling” or head priest. By the 17th century the terms was linked to church organizations. Now it has spread to military and business use. The origins thus provide almost all power and intelligence to top of the hierarchy.

Dan also notes that the Industrial Revolution cemented the link to the hierarchical approach to management. Fredrick Taylor called this “scientific management.” It rose to influence in the 1880s and 1890s within the manufacturing industries. Its peak of influence came in the 1910s but it often was badly received by workers. The Wikipedia reports an interesting story from that time.

“Under Taylorism, workers’ work effort increased in intensity. Workers became dissatisfied with the work environment and became angry. During one of Taylor’s own implementations, a strike at the Watertown Arsenal led to an investigation of Taylor’s methods by a U.S. House of Representatives committee, which reported in 1912. The conclusion was that scientific management did provide some useful techniques and offered valuable organizational suggestions but it gave production managers a dangerously high level of uncontrolled power. After an attitude survey of the workers revealed a high level of resentment and hostility towards scientific management, the Senate banned Taylor’s methods at the arsenal.” (image of Taylor from Wikipedia)

Despite this negative reaction many aspects of hierarchical and scientific management remained in place. We have all seen them. Dan provides some interesting examples.

Now new tools open up communication up and down the different levels of the organization. This cross level communication was often consciously blocked by middle managers or just got lost in the chain of command. Now company conversations can be out in the open for anyone to take them in and join. Collaboration tools can turn Taylorism on its head so learning goes up and down the enterprise and the whole structure is flatted. I would certainly agree with Dan’s views here. However, precisely because of this transformative change in communication it takes a cultural change to work. This is much of the content in Dan’s very useful book.

He writes how leaders can reverse traditional heirarchical leadership model and become a connected leader. He defines open leadership as, “the act of engaging others to influence and execute a coordinated and harmonious conclusion.” If you can harness the thinking of the entire company to solve problems, you will be creating a much more effective organization. There is much value to be gained from this connection. For example, McKinsey found quantified benefits from the connected enterprise in both 2010 and 2011. Now they have doubled down on their forecasts for the business value of connectivity. See my post, McKinsey Projects Business Value of Social Business at a Trillion Annually, for a look at the bright side potential of the connected enterprise.

If you want to unlock this value for your organization, Dan’s Flat Army should be on your reading list.

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