A review of ‘Flawed but Willing’ by Khurshed Dehnugara

I recently came across the Japanese word Tsundoku. My immediate reaction was that it was a new variation of Sudoku but I was intrigued to learn that it was a noun describing the act of buying a lot of books and then letting them pile up unread on a shelf, floor or bedside table. I am a bibliophile: I like reading and discovering. Yet I am guilty as charged, having this un-admirable tendency to buy books that I hear good things about, or have been recommended to me, or I think I will find interesting, and never getting around to reading them.

There are always exceptions though: for every five books I buy and ignore, there is one that I do get around to reading. One such book was Khurshed Dehnugara’s ‘Flawed but Willing’ which, ironically, has contributed to my Tsundoku habit as I have now read it four times. I have not written a book review before and will probably not do so again but I thought I should make an effort with ‘Flawed but Willing’ because, quite simply, it is exceptional.

The premise of the book is that organisations are living through a period of change (a “phase shift”) where we are experiencing the beginning of the end of the Command & Control era of scientific management and ruthless efficiency (“the Industrial Age”) and the emergence of a completely new paradigm (“the Age of Connection”) based on communities, networks and collective interests (which put me in mind of Jon Husband’s ‘Wirearchy’).

It is important to understand that the author is not some misty-eyed future of work guru who espouses idealistic and naïve new-age beliefs about the world of business. He clearly understands the commercial imperative of organisations and he has his own real world experiences to draw from during his former career in pharmaceuticals. The concept of the Age of Connection is a recognition that the Industrial Age was of its time but has now run its course and has very little, if anything, in 2015 to offer organisations whose objective is long-term, sustainable growth against a backdrop of considerable complexity and unpredictability.

The Flawed but Willing of the title are those who understand they must navigate this phase shift but know that it will involve a considerable amount of discomfort and disorientation. A simple diagram of two circles is deployed throughout the book to illustrate this change: one large to represent the “Dominant Logic” of this current but gradually unravelling era, and one small to represent the emerging era. At the intersection between the two circles is the “Channel”, the domain of the Flawed but Willing where they make occasional mistakes and do battle with the uncertainty and anxiety which arises from the inevitable ambiguity of their journey. A third stand-alone circle is used by Khurshed to sensibly distance himself from the selfish, destructive and nihilistic forms of disruption that some have sought to justify as being an appropriate response to the failings and shortcomings of the Industrial Age.

If I had one piece of constructive criticism to offer, it is that a little more attention could have been paid to the evidence for the gradual disintegration of the Industrial Age. This evidence is to be found in the paradoxes being thrown up by many organisations as they struggle to keep a grip on their own destinies. Khurshed offers one such paradox by recognising that we are asked to be creative and innovative but without taking risks. However, there are many more such as the attempts at engaging employees and driving cultural change which are proving futile as record levels of workplace stress, attrition and absenteeism demonstrate. Ditto the deployment of ultra-sophisticated performance management tools and the push for big data that is designed to increase certainty, but is having no discernible positive effect on performance or the relentless mantra of customer focus but designing ‘solutions’ that are predominantly production-centric (standardisation and compliance trump purpose).

Another major paradox is the prevailing notion of control when even the most basic and honest assessment of organisational performance shows us that, as Anne Marie McEwan identified, business outcomes are probabilistic and cannot be determined. Awkwardly, this truth does not sit comfortably with the dominant Industrial Age narrative that CEOs and other senior leaders are heroes and heroines who are almost single-handedly responsible for their companies’ successes. It could be argued that putting CEOs on such high pedestals in the last two decades may go a long way to explaining why the Industrial Age has continued to prevail long after its sell-by date.

Leaders need to have the courage to accept that they are never completely in control of their businesses’ destinies and this is where the second half of the book really comes into its own. Rather than offer a practical, step-by-step ‘how to’ checklist for navigating (“stumbling through”) the phase shift to the Age of Connection (and to provide such a mechanised solution would be to miss the point entirely), it instead offers a series of observations, anecdotes and stories to guide readers and strengthen their resilience on their personal expeditions through the Channel.

How Khurshed does this is very clever. He frames these observations, anecdotes and stories as a confluence of power (courage and persistence) and love (awareness and compassion), each from the perspective of our own inner space (self-awareness), our relationships with others and the collective relationships present in all organisations. This is based on his recognition that we all need to re-connect with our true selves and with those around us and society as a whole. I found myself thinking again of Simon Heath’s observation that ‘soft’ skills are not soft, they are the hardest set of skills we will ever need. By accepting and understanding the flaws in ourselves and others, and by being comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, we can discover new ways to create value and perhaps the greatest paradox of all, is that more creativity and growth will be possible in the Age of Connection than anything we could have mustered in the Industrial Age.

‘Flawed but Willing’ is a reminder that we must give power to, not hold power over, in order to make organisations places where people can thrive rather than feel compelled to focus on their own survival. The book’s style and structure will not be to everyone’s taste but like a great album or other complex piece of art, it benefits from being re-visited on many occasions; there is always something new to discover, previously unnoticed. You are requested to draw your own conclusions and most of us will be able to relate, very deeply, to the stories and situations within – in my case, Chapter 7(c) is the best piece of business writing I have ever read. Khurshed reveals in the Acknowledgements that this is a “business book written as a love story”. I can think of no better endorsement.

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