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Reading list

March 2014

Reading list

Books and articles that matter

By Dean Andy Boynton

How does an organization think? My quick answer: It doesn’t. People think, and the organization, at best, gives them the space to learn new things and explore fresh ideas.

My longer answer is teased out from two thought-provoking books, Rendezvous with Destiny: How Franklin D. Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America into the War and into the World (Penguin, 2013), by Michael Fullilove, and Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great American Innovation (Penguin, 2012).

Fullilove and Gertner portray leaders who made great strides by maneuvering around their own organizations, unimpeded by obstacles within their own bureaucracies. That’s how they carved out the space for people to grapple with complex problems and figure out what had to be done.

In Rendezvous with Destiny, Fullilove describes Roosevelt’s end-run around the Department of State. FDR distrusted career diplomats, partly because of isolationist sentiments among them—even at a time when Hitler’s troops were marching through the European continent. So the president sent personal envoys to what Fullilove calls the “warring capitals” of France, Italy, and Germany, and to London and Moscow. Sumner Welles, William “Wild Bill” Donovan, Wendell Willkie, Harry Hopkins, and Averell Harriman fanned out through Europe and returned to Roosevelt with information unfiltered by State about how to bolster our allies; what, if any, kind of aid Stalin could be trusted with; and whether to “lend” Britain military equipment it couldn’t pay for in cash. They also provided Roosevelt with initial assessments of whether London and Moscow could withstand the Nazi onslaught.

In The Idea Factory, Gertner chronicles the obstacles faced by AT&T’s top executives in the early twentieth century. These were mainly problems of scale: how to massively expand the telephone system without degrading the quality of phone connections. AT&T needed to do some quick, intense learning, and the executives realized that for this to happen they had to spawn a new environment outside of the corporate structure. The result was the creation of Bell Labs in 1925 and its diverse team of experts, ranging from physicists and metallurgists to engineers and telephone climbers. They invented the transistor and paved the way for the microchip, among other historic breakthroughs.

Both FDR and AT&T’s leaders understood that big organizations do not ordinarily think well. Government agencies aren’t especially known for innovating. Big companies, like machines, are good at making things. The problem is that if they want to innovate, they have to be great at thinking things too.

Ideas get better when they flow freely through an organization, unfettered by rules, hierarchies, and processes. A good leader knows how to free up people for this flow of thinking and learning (whenever possible, in close physical proximity with each other). For example, some years ago Google began allowing employees to devote 20 percent of their time to projects of their own choosing—time unstructured by the organization.

A university can be as bureaucratic as any federal agency or megacorporation. Part of our challenge at Boston College is to provide creative latitude for tackling important questions about how we teach our students and prepare them for life after Chestnut Hill.

At the Carroll School, our recent innovations (among these, a revision of the core management curriculum in 2012 and new metrics for student course evaluations) have come about because we went beyond our usual structures. We’ve let staff and faculty pursue ideas, experiment with initiatives, and yes, fail at times—along the way to success.