Loose: The Future of Business is Letting Go
Martin Thomas, Headline Publishing Group
Marketing consultant Martin Thomas was co-author of Crowd Surfing, one of my favourite books in 2008. When I saw the new book's contents page containing such chapters as 'Not a place for tidy minds' and 'The end of planning?' I knew I was in for a treat.
In follow up to Crowd Surfing and Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody (my top pick from 2008), this feels like a radical manifesto. It's certainly a challenge to the micro-managers, the planners and brand consultants whose traditional role has been to offer predictability and certainty.
We live in a complex, non-linear world – and the challenge is how to 'embrace the chaos and ambiguity of modern life'.
The author is keen to stress that this is not a web phenomenon. 'Something interesting is happening beyond the world of social media: public meetings are suddenly all the rage.'
It's a social phenomenon – and an understanding of behavioural economics is more useful than mastery of technology, Thomas argues. 'The simplistic view of man as a rational economic animal doesn't appear to fit the mood of the times.'
Simple prescriptions obviously won't do, though the author does offer some broad guiding principles for successful loose organisations (on page 168). He also gives many case studies to show where loose principles prevailed (ASDA, Pret a Manger, First Direct and Unilever among them).
He quotes Google's Shona Brown discussing loose management: 'The way to succeed in fast-paced, ambiguous situations is to avoid creating too much structure, but not to add too little either.'
Those singled out for criticism include business schools that have inculcated a rational approach to business. 'We are witnessing the unravelling of the most fundamental building blocks of the commercial world and a collapse of faith in tight, empirical rational models and ways of thinking.'
Thomas writes well of the millennial generation who 'take great pleasure in subverting any attempts by authority figures to silence them.' But I should say that I'm more likely to be criticised by my students for teaching in too 'loose' a way by those who want me to give them much more precise instructions ('just tell me what you want me to do').
The author is an articulate and well-read guide. Though it's a business book and not an academic text, he frequently makes me feel inadequate by his erudition.
While there's nothing I can disagree with the in the book's premise, it's not an original idea. I'm surprised the author makes no reference to open source, whose concepts have already been taken beyond software development into politics and marketing.
And a book that makes an even more compelling case for creativity and innovation in business is Charles Leadbeater's We Think (not cited here).
But it's an enjoyable and valuable read and the challenge for many will be to learn the lessons and put them into practice.
'The principles that appear to determine the success of any social media initiative are becoming well established: be responsive, be human, be transparent… Unfortunately, most institutions struggle to live by them.'