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InReview – Issue 20

The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America by David Whyte; New York, Currency Doubleday, 1994; xii, 323 pp.

Poet David Whyte has applied his perspectives on creativity and organizational development to numerous corporations through his consulting work.

“Poetry” and “corporate America” seem like the ultimate oxymoron, yet David Whyte makes a strong argument for the connection in this delightful book. To read the book, or better yet to listen to him in person, makes it clear that he knows his poetry. He has memorized a vast collection and has written many poems as well. Yet what separates him from many others in his field is the effort he has made to understand business.

Whyte’s effort has led him to conclude “I expected to be at least a little corrupted by my immersion [into the corporate world], but in the process discovered as much about my own arrogance as that of the American Corporation” (p. 8). I wonder how many corporate executives would be prepared to acknowledge a similar misplaced arrogance toward poetry and the arts?

Whyte is not willing to settle for a “loose” connection. He has looked carefully at some key workplace issues (e.g., power and vulnerability, the environment for creativity, fear of speaking out in the face of opposition) and brought poetry to the point of these and other challenges. For example, he uses Beowulf to speak directly to fears in the workplace, and also suggests how at an emotional level we might confront those fears.

Issues like these need to be addressed for the well-being both of the worker and the business. What business is not interested in bringing the best of the creative minds of its people into engagement with the tough problems of the company in this day of knowledge work? The book includes quotes from a significant number of poems, discussed in context with actual business situations, making the subject come alive with relevance.

There are two shortcomings about this book. The first is easier to address than to solve. In person, David Whyte quotes poetry (all from memory) with a strong, quiet voice paced to bring the poems alive. His use of frequent repetition when reciting poetry adds to the feeling. The book medium doesn’t support either the delivery of feeling or the control of pace. I suppose a book is a useful substitute, but it is a substitute.

The second issue is much tougher, and deals with the process of “bringing the soul to work.” “Many trainers and consultants maintain that the soul belongs at home or in church,” he says (p.16). He then shows the effect of stifling this soul in an environment that demands creativity. He readily acknowledges difficulties in bridging this gap. But his solution is to turn primarily to Eastern religions for insight, a practice that seems to be accepted by many corporate executives but which creates some significant conflicts for many committed Christians, Jews, or Muslims. Whyte completely ducks this point, perhaps believing (erroneously, I believe) that Eastern thought is somehow neutral.

The broader question of how religious thought can bring value and insight into the business world without creating significant conflict is worthy of further study. Other books that briefly touch these themes include: Leadership is an Art, Theory R Management, Believers in Business, and The Minding Organization. (Reviews for most of these can be found at www.ethix.org).

David Whyte makes a significant contribution with this book. He addresses issues often ignored in the workplace, and opens up some challenging questions.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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Jack: Straight from the Gut
by Jack Welch (with John A. Byrne); New York, Warner Business Books, 2001; xvi, 479 pp.

Jack Welch recently retired after more than forty years at General Electric, the last twenty as CEO. John A. Byrne is a senior writer for Business Week. Welch is often considered to be the top business executive of the twentieth century, a remarkable accomplishment in itself, especially considering the roles of leaders like Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan, among others.

The first thing I was looking for from this book was whether Jack Welch actually wrote it. Often a writer collaborating with a busy executive is a signal that the executive may have only read the final draft. In this case, however, it would appear to be “straight from the gut” as the title suggests. This sounds like Welch from start to finish. You can almost hear his nasal New England accent. Further there are many places (like chapter fifteen, entitled “Too Full of Myself”) that would be very difficult for a collaborator to write about such a powerful figure, and then get him to agree with it.

Two themes are intertwined throughout the book. One deals with the person Jack Welch; the other defines and illustrates his ideas about how to run a business. The first 88 pages (six chapters) of the book deal with his childhood and early years at GE until the time he became CEO. The balance of the book covers his life as CEO, from the early days of establishing his leadership until the decision to retire and the choosing of his successor.

Passion has to be the key word describing Jack Welch. He was passionate about sports in the early days, and this passion for golf continues (a copy of his scorecard from the time he defeated Greg Norman in an 18 hole practice round is included on p. 406). He was passionate about driving out bureaucracy, and he did some extraordinary things to get this done. He was passionate about people and providing ways to continue learning in GE. And he was passionate about learning and change, demonstrated through the chapters on six sigma and e-business.

You get the impression that hard working, very competent people must have loved working for Jack, while others must have hated it. That’s exactly what he wanted.

He doesn’t duck the controversial issues of his leadership at GE. He gives his views on why it is important and necessary to drive improvement into the business even to the extent of eliminating ten percent of the people at the bottom of the performance curve each year. He devotes a significant discussion to his view of the problems associated with PCB contamination of the Hudson River. He even describes the end of his 28-year marriage to his first wife Carolyn, and the courtship and marriage to Jane (and her development as a golfer) all as a subtopic in the chapter on “The RCA Deal.”

At the end, you may admire him as a leader or dislike him for his practices and drive, but it is hard to remain neutral about Jack Welch. This book is honest (from his point of view) and so he will probably not change many people’s viewpoints about him.

Warren Buffett in his endorsement of the book says: “Jack is the Tiger Woods of management. All CEOs want to emulate him. They won’t be able to, but they’ll come closer if they listen carefully to what he has to say.” I’m not sure.

What he has to say is deeply rooted in who he is as a person. As a person Jack is decisive, has a strong intuitive business sense, strong ideas about how to do certain things, an incredible sense of integrity, is willing to learn new things, and has a deep passion for people. In addition, like all people, he has his share of warts.

I have watched others try to take his ideas (selectively) without some of these deeply rooted principles, and the result is not a pretty sight. I think you have to go beyond just listening to what he has to say to get the most from Jack.

This book is a fast read, and could be the basis for some wonderful discussion about business, globalization, business growth, e-business, management practices and the like. I highly recommend it.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes In The Age Of The Machine
by Donald A. Norman; Cambridge, MA, Perseus Books, 1993;

Donald Norman is founding chair of the Department of Cognitive Science at the University of California, San Diego. In this third of his three lively forays into the human issues of product and system design, he brings us to an understanding of how systems can succeed or fail to enlist users’ natural inclinations and common experiences.

I was first attracted to Norman’s writings by a telecommunications engineer with whom I found myself frequently griping about how badly designed even the simplest objects seem to be. I would tell him about walking up the steps to a large government edifice and thinking that the steps, too deep and too short, were designed to fit the building’s exterior appearance, not for walking up. And that the door at the top required near super-human strength and agility to first open and then avoid as it slammed shut. He would tell me about cabinetry in his little office cubicle that required him to get out of his chair and stand aside in order to open the silly door. My friend had a book entitled with its own acronym: POET – the Psychology of Everyday Things (New York: Basic Books, 1988). It was the first of Donald Norman’s works in the area. The book was later republished as The Design of Everyday Things (New York: Doubleday, 1990), the new title being more attractive to its intended audience.

In Things That Make Us Smart, Norman transcends the issues of annoying doors that are difficult to open, light switches that are arranged confusingly, VCRs that are nearly impossible to program. He addresses the problems of complex artifacts, information and control systems, that need to be tuned to the way humans are, not the way engineers would like them to be. From this reviewer’s point of view, there are significant ethical implications of solving technical problems by passing them on to users instead of building products that work intuitively. Norman instructs us in how people collect and then apply experience with technical artifacts so that designers and developers will understand how to make systems easy to use. I, for one, use many systems whose designers could have benefited from this book.

But ease of use is not just a matter of convenience. It is vitally important when designers are arranging systems such as nuclear power plant control rooms and aircraft cockpits. Operator error, no matter the extent and quality of training, can be induced or avoided by the design of a system’s control mechanisms and the manner in which the system confirms the operator’s actions through feedback. Norman does not merely theorize about the implications of cognitive factors, distributed cognition and technological neutrality, he describes in detail how representational systems (like a map versus actual terrain) work to help or hinder us. He makes us realize how system designers cannot, by definition, judge the adequacy of their own work because of the inherent intimacy of the design process. He dissects real examples of successful and failed designs. And, he leaves me wondering how I could ever have been satisfied with some designs I’ve implemented.

Norman concludes by challenging us to build systems that take advantage of people’s natural inclinations for learning and for applying and re-applying experience, and to eschew dissonance with people’s honest, positive behaviours. As an active designer and IT project leader, I feel invigorated and encouraged to accept his challenge.

Reviewed by Tim Penner, Greely, Ontario

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