A Wake up Call We've Been Waiting For

As a committed practitioner of organizational learning and change, I consume plenty of books, articles and posts covering various developments in the field. Carol Sanford’s “The Responsible Business” is in a league of its own. I am convinced that it is by far the most important book written on the subject in decades.

What makes this book so important and special?

The harsh reality is that the field of organizational learning and change has rarely lived up to its promise. With the billions of dollars invested in organizational learning and change efforts around the world, the true ROI of these efforts remains incredibly poor. (Just consider that close to 70% of all change initiatives fail, and over 70% of US employees are disengaged — a whopping 89% worldwide, according to Gallup. These statistics have remained relatively constant over the years.)

"Responsible Business" is a wake up call that the field so desperately needs, in at least two ways.

First, Sanford very convincingly (and unapologetically) demonstrates that many of our dominant approaches to organizational learning and change are fundamentally flawed. She turns much of conventional wisdom on its head, arguing against widely accepted packaged programs and best practices such as reward-and-recognition programs, performance reviews, 360-degree feedback, and focus on predefined leadership competencies — because these practices are counter productive in growing autonomy, responsibility and self-direction in people.

Second and perhaps most importantly, Sanford shines the light on a pragmatic path forward for those courageous business leaders and organizational practitioners who are truly committed to growing their organizations’ capacity to thrive in today’s volatile and increasingly complex world — even if it means pioneering entirely new organizational territory. If building a culture that nurtures “self-governing and self-determining human beings who exercise their own will and creativity toward improving and evolving the world of their stakeholders” energizes you, this book is for you.

Below are a few major themes that stood out for me in Sanford’s groundbreaking work:

The critical importance of wholeness-centric view. Most talk about “wholeness” in the context of inviting “the whole employee” to work. Sanford goes far beyond the individual. Wholeness in her view is also about redrawing the organizational boundary to include all of its stakeholders — its customers, employees, partners, suppliers, communities, etc. The reason is pragmatic: in doing so, the organization can unleash new and unprecedented levels of caring, meaningful innovation and co-creative collaboration among and within all its stakeholder groups, thus generating significantly more value for all.

Putting “living” into “systems thinking” Systems thinking has become an increasingly popular notion in the organizational world, but when applied to organizations it often reinforces a ‘mechanistic’ way of seeing. Sanford draws a compelling distinction between “mechanistic systems thinking” and “living/regenerative systems thinking.” The latter sees an organization and its stakeholder groups as nested and overlapping living wholes interconnected by dynamic relationships, each distinguished by its unique essence and an innate desire to evolve toward its unique purpose. This is a fundamental paradigm shift — a dramatic reframing of how we think about organizations and organization change. Fully embracing this shift is the challenge and opportunity of our times.

Programmatic/packaged/fragmented solutions and “best practices” can create more damage than good. Sanford debunks the common (and often unconscious) assumption that a packaged program successfully implemented in one organization would also succeed elsewhere. She makes a compelling case that every organization is a unique living social organism, and thus the design of any change and development effort must be unique to the organization’s particular challenge, culture, environment and moment in time.

In addition, Sanford makes a brilliant point that “packaged and mechanical change processes do not build the capacity for responsibility; they build capacity for compliance.” In other words, packaged programs breed passengers, not leaders. Having experienced many such programs, I could not agree more.

Developing people is perhaps the most pragmatic [business] growth strategy. The organizations in Sanford’s case studies developed people not because it sounded like a good idea (or because they had a developmental budget to spend), but because they simply couldn’t meet their significant business growth challenges otherwise.

“Development” here goes far beyond training (i.e. acquisition of skills); it is about growing the capacity of people and teams to lead and learn, to think and act more inclusively and systemically, to care deeply for the organization’s stakeholders, and to take full responsibility for the whole.

Consequently, development was not something that happened episodically and on the side, away from “real work” (through packaged programs deployed by traditional learning & development departments.) Rather, it was fueled by very real challenges and was carefully woven into the fabric of every day operations. Also notably, all of development was owned and managed by the learners themselves.

bottom line

Sanford’s contribution is monumental — a rare breath of fresh air in the field cluttered with increasingly sophisticated advice on how to fix or improve traditional organizational machinery.

Those who expect easy-to-follow recipes and best practices will likely be disappointed. The book is not about what to do as an organizational practitioner — it is about how to think like a true architect and craftsperson engaging with organizations as complex living social organisms. And that’s precisely the kind of contribution the world of organization design and change needs so desperately at this time.


Many thanks to Bill Veltrop for suggesting great improvements to this review.