BOOK REVIEW / Travelling in a team: 'Business Without Bosses' - Charles C. Manz and Henry P. Sims: John Wiley & Sons, 19.95 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Few management book titles have been as appealing as Business Without Bosses. And few have been as misleading.

For this is no handbook of workplace anarchy. Rather, it describes a situation in which the boss is replaced by somebody who can be every bit as intimidating: the leader.

The idea is that the modern business environment is all about teamwork. And teams that really produce the goods are filled with people who are self-motivated and do not have to be cajoled into action.

Not surprisingly for a pair of American academics who have together, separately and with other partners trotted out a series of volumes with 'leadership' in the title, this attribute is termed 'self- leadership'.

Moreover, 'a self-managing team is a natural extension of self- leadership. It is a type of collective or group self-leadership', with the 'SuperLeader' - the subject of the authors' previous book - helping to make it happen by 'initiating, encouraging and supporting'. But presumably not bossing.

In case any reader working in a prehistoric organisation where the boss is still ruling the roost should scoff that this sounds like more futuristic management theory, they should be aware that such practices are apparently already well established.

In the dozen or so years since Messrs Manz and Sims started writing on self-management, they have carried out research on a number of companies with a view to increasing their understanding of 'the amazing potential and formidable challenges of employee self-leadership'.

Taking care to point out that - however new these ideas might sound to the reader - there have been any number of 'how to' guides to team-building published in recent years, the authors see themselves as guides able to offer an inside view of real-life teams in action.

In many ways, their book conforms to the travel genre. It is concise, it is broken up into short sections - themselves punctuated by sub-headings, summaries and key points - and it is full of encouragement. Furthermore, while most of the stops along the route fall into the 'must see' category, there is the odd blackspot that demonstrates the guides have not lost their critical faculties.

It is certainly a trip full of variety. For instance, we travel from a General Motors battery plant in rural Georgia - where teams have helped to produce 30 per cent cost savings - to a Texas Instruments facility in Malaysia that uses teams as a central plank in a Total Quality Management programme. We move from a team contributing to enhanced work satisfaction at IDS Financial Corporation, an American Express subsidiary, to one that helps WL Gore, the private company that makes Gore- Tex and many other products, remain highly innovative and flexible.

PRACTICAL SERVICE

The intention is to show teams at various stages of development and thus offer lessons for those tempted to visit the territory. By getting away from the beguiling theory that often besets this kind of book and actually explaining the mechanics of the process (at the same time as suggesting that it was anything but an immediate or universally agreed decision), the authors and the associates who had a hand in many of the chapters have done business a service.

Indeed, so long as they remain practical they are convincing. They fall down in philosophising about the teams concept, as in the section of the introduction where they stress that teams are nothing to do with Japanese management techniques but founded in 'the strengths of Western culture and history'.

Nor should the would-be traveller be over-impressed by the argument that teams have been unsung for so long because 'many executives were not philosophically ready to accept the idea that ordinary workers can be trusted to manage their day-to-day activities without someone looking over their shoulders'.

Since on the previous page the authors suggest the sort of things 'leaders of self-managing teams' should do, it is perhaps more likely that the idea has received less coverage because it is not terribly revolutionary. Instead, it is all of a piece with other developments in the modern organisation, such as project management and flatter hierarchies.

Consequently, Messrs Manz and Sims should not be surprised if the example of the unnamed organisation where teams were used to increase boss control from the top lingers longer in the armchair tourists' minds than the brilliant success stories.

Comments