Book Review: Will McInnes – Culture Shock – A Handbook for 21st Century Business

If you have not read any of my “book reviews” before you may not know that I do not really write book reviews. There’s too little time to worry about bad books, so I only focus on writing about books that I really think you will benefit from reading. The most recent one I have literally just put down is Culture Shock by Will McInnes and it is a little cracker.

Culture Shock

McInness is a cofounder of NixonMcInnes which he describes as “a pioneering social business consultancy working with large organisations that need to change their culture, structure and skills to meet the demands of business in the 21st century.” That pretty neatly sums up what the book is about; how different companies are doing things better, right now.

It was interesting for me that McIness had provided consultancy to O2, the UK mobile phone company which in 2009 launched the highly innovative virtual mobile service provider Giffgaff. A decade previously I was one of the co-founders of Genie Internet, the world’s first mobile internet portal which was also another subsidiary of BT Cellnet (the former name of O2 which was then still part of the BT Group).

McIness discusses Agile project management as a framework that many organisations should be looking towards, and we at Genie absolutely lived and breathed this philosophy. Our tiny team of twelve were taken well away from the head offices of BT Cellnet in Slough and into some rented offices in Richmond-upon-Thames to hack out our vision of the portal well away from the politics of being in such a large and sometimes cumbersome organisation.

The goal of McIness was “to provide not only the inspiration and belief, but also to help you by stimulating practical actions and real-world next steps.” I think he achieves this well, a goal which is helped immensely by the structuring of the book into the following chapters:

  • Purpose and Meaning
  • Democracy and Empowerment
  • Progressive People
  • Conscious Leadership
  • Organisational Openness
  • Change Velocity
  • Tech DNA
  • Fair Finances

Chapter one just totally hits the spot, highlighting on the intellectual poverty of focussing purely on shareholder value. It marks the start of listing many interesting case studies, perhaps with some of the more obvious ones such as Apple, Google and Patagonia, and also more left field ones such as Noma and the new Nordic Cuisine, the video below of which is referenced:

In chapter 2 I had a slight wobble with McIness, and was not entirely too sure about the initial case he was making. Based on my own experience in the corporate world, my feeling is that private business often seems far more democratic than what we have in our British political system today, which seems designed purely to give the outward appearance of democracy. I could write a whole blog on this, but maybe I have been lucky in always having open access to the CEOs of the companies I have worked for, including Peter Cochrane at BT Laboratories, Peter Erskine at BT Cellnet, and Brian Greasley at Genie Internet and then Digital Bridges and iPlay.

McIness also discusses the lattice structure of Gore Associates, where there are no job titles or formal corporate structure. Mentoring plays a huge role at Gore, and I should also mention Tony Eales, now CEO of Teltrac but who was then in 1996 Head of Business Development at BT Cellnet and championed bringing me to BT Cellnet from BT Laboratories to be Head of Smart Phones while I was just 26. BT Cellnet did not have any expertise in designing the customer experience, an approach which would probably now be called Design Thinking, and which the Human Factors Department at BT Laboratories played a central role in developing. Tony gave me a huge amount of tuition in business development, something I never learnt at business school but on the job, and mentoring is one area where organisations really do fall down in terms of nurturing talent.

I mentioned to Maria that McIness is a big fan of Brazil’s Ricard Semler, and that McIness on a number of occasions enthusiastically encourages us to read his book Maverick. I read these books on future business thinking with two eyes now, one British and one Brazilian, and Maria said how when Semler first published his book in the 1980s, the intellectual elites of Brazil absolutely castigated him, trashing both his book and also him personally. Maria went to UNICAMP university, the Oxford or Cambridge of Brazil and studied economics. There too her teachers trashed Semler saying it was a piece of nonsense.

While the culture of the book’s title refers to changing the culture in organisations, here in Brazil there are some huge cultural issues relating to this country’s inability to deal with the most talented and intelligent Brazilians. They can have a kind of self-destruct towards their fellow country men and women, and yet had McInnes written Maverick, he would have been welcomed with open arms as the greatest guru of his time, purely because the ideas came from outside of Brazil.

This is no criticism of the book, and it is of course wonderful for a Brazilian to be mentioned in a work such as this. McInnes would also have done well to look at DPaschoal whose president Luis Norberto Pascoal Maria and I interviewed, and also Sérgio Chaia, one of Brazil’s top CEOs who practices Buddhism and mindfulness (especially for his chapter on Conscious Leadership).

There is always a slight contradiction in this type of book (I am not too sure if contradiction is the right word), in that it is a book about what McIness refers to as “progressive businesses” the “progressive movement” and “progressive business people”. The type of people who really should be reading this book are not the ones who primarily will, i.e. people like us who are looking for inspiration and solidarity from those who are really making a difference, compared to the “fools currently running things.”

I mentioned I was not too sure where McInnes was coming from in his section on democracy but then he came up with an absolutely cracking summary of “conventional leadership”:

For me, convenitonal leadership is too male, too top-down, too analytical, too micro-managery, too short-term, too beholden to too few stakeholders. Conventional notions of leadership are basically a bullshit style and approach for the society we live in. In fact, it baffles me that we’ve tolerated it thus far.

Yes – I couldn’t really have put it better myself.

McInnes covers many of the themes I have been writing about on my blog, about the move to recognise right-brained thinking, how to capture emergent behaviour in organisations and movements, the need for humility in our leadership and also he covers extensively the notion of openness and how this is changing our mental models of how we conceive of as the boundaries between organisations and the ecosystems of which they are a part. It was also great to see him discuss happiness, and the work of Nic Marks who taught both Maria and I for a week on the module The Economics of Happiness at Schumacher College.

McIness is very explicit in his book which has as its focus how organisations can better work with technology. Much of the thinking about openness and emergence comes from studies and inspiration from complex systems in nature. McIness very does much mention issues around sustainability, but I do feel that readers who resonate with this theme would also do well to then read Giles Hutchins’ The Nature of Business – Redesigning for Resilience.

Nature's Principles

I am a member of BCI (Biomimicry for Creative Innovation) of which Giles is the founder, and in his book Giles walks a path which is aimed at harmonising organisations with nature. He uses the model above to describe the principles of nature which can act as the framework around which to base an organisations strategy, values and vision. I do feel that Culture Shock contains much of what is contained within this framework, just not so explicitly.

Photo Credit: Alan Moore

Photo Credit: Alan Moore

I have already mentioned that McInnes’ goal was to stimulate real-world practical actions and in this regard the book works extremely well, with each chapter packed with lists and very practical guidance on exactly what to look for in changing your own organisation. He stays away from the more philosophical side of things (no bad thing at all) but one step I would also suggest is to them look at Alan Moore’s No Straight Lines  – Making Sense of our Non-Linear World. While McIness does look at this notion of meaning in the first chapter, he does so rapidly whereas Alan’s book can help us dive into this notion of non-linearity and what exactly it means in terms of reshaping our conceptions of the world.

As a side note, McIness calls for more openness in all aspects of our organisational lives (not to be confused with privacy). I should therefore note that I am friends with both Alan and Giles, a factor you may wish to take into account when considering my recommendations.

Alan provides a six-factored framework around the concepts ambiguity, adaptiveness, openness, participation, craftsmanship and epic wins. I think the notion of craftsmanship is the main area that complements Culture Shock, since there the emphasis is on constantly being in beta testing in the world of technology and IT, whereas craftsmanship is something I feel we are losing but need to regain pride in, especially as it can play such a major role in sustainability, compared to our present world of built-in obsolescence and our destructive fixation with upgrading to the latest and greatest new shiny thing.

Any other points? McIness does well to dedicate an entire chapter to a re-envisioning of money and finance, which I can heartily endorse. One case study I would have loved to have seen, and one which I am sure McInnes would resonate with is that of the country of Iceland, a country which has quietly stuck two fingers up at the banking community, thrown the worst offenders in prison, and has quietly and without recognition rebuilt its economy and banking ecosystem. Amazing. As I write this blog the UK has just lost its AAA credit rating (although it lost this some years ago in the Simon Robinson credit worthiness system), and our insane banking system is something all organisations are going to have to address, with those excellent progressive businesses described by McInnes starting now.

Overall Culture Shock is a five star book for those looking to find inspiration from the most progressive organisations and businesses around the world. I can highly recommend it, but that recommendation is slightly nuanced, in that I feel that Culture Shock works best as part of a trilogy with The Nature of Business and No Straight Lines. My own students I teach at a number of business schools in Brazil, but mainly at Sustentare Escola de Negócios in Joinville will certainly be familiar with some of the case studies I use to teach, such as Gore, Semco and Patagonia, and Culture Shock provides many many more thought provoking cases to consider and ponder over.

McInnes pulls no punches over the disastrous state of our current leadership and governance, and a more positive me would long to see those in power really study the insights deeply. Whether or not that does turn out to be the case we shall see, but for those who really do connect with the desire to see business progress consciously and ethically, you would do well to check out Culture Shock.

Related Articles

Dialogue on Leadership: Luís Norberto Pascoal, President of DPaschoal

Dialogue on Leadership: Presidents who Practice Mindfulness – Two Amazing Examples from Brazil

Book discussion: The Nature of Business by Giles Hutchins

Braziliance! Chaos and Complexity, Philosophy and Flux Through Brazilian Eyes – Reflections from Sustentare

Basket Case Currencies

3 responses to “Book Review: Will McInnes – Culture Shock – A Handbook for 21st Century Business

  1. Simon, thank you so much for this. It’s great to connect with you and hear where the Culture Shock ideas click with you and also where bits didn’t.
    Very interesting to hear Maria’s experience on how the Brazillian business elite reacted to Ricardo Semler’s work – I am not surprised, but it’s still deeply disappointing… I guess it just reinforces the challenges we have and the importance of all of our work to fundamentally change the world of business.
    Finally, I also enjoyed the heartening snippets from your Genie experiences. There are brilliant people and leaders out there, smart progressive sub-cultures and organisations that successfully buck the dominant trends. And to hear of them always lifts my spirits, so thank you for sharing.
    I hope we meet in the real world one day – in the meantime, thank you for spreading the ideas in Culture Shock that we both share.
    – Will

    • Hi Will

      Thanks for your comments. I think one day I should write up a case study of Genie and also the project I was responsible for at BT Cellnet – launching Nortel’s Orbitor – the first java mobile phone. This was not just the handset but the full client – server solution, and the handset had a touch sensitive graphical interface.

      Nortel produced 80 units and we were about to run a large trial in the UK as Nortel’s strategic partner. However, just before these trials the top brass at Nortel had cold feet and canned the project.

      Don Lindsay, the chief designer then took his team to Apple, who did manage to produce a commercial java handset and the rest was history.

      I think your book is a really excellent one as more and more I am seeing in Brazil a reliance on the North American model of linear processes. People want to be taught about templates but they do not want to think about the process. For example, it is one thing to know how to fill in a template, but this is not sufficient to guarantee success any more. Processes are not so linear so you have to be able to detect how the project is proceeding and how to adapt the process to the situation. Brazilians it seems are not used to working in this manner, hence the need for books such as yours to really help them make this transition.

      I have mentioned Semler a lot as I do try and use Brazilian examples in my lectures. I think maybe now there is a little more acceptance, but he is never on tv and you never see him at the big business conferences which is a real shame.

      It will be great to know if you do have a Portuguese translation coming out as I can see your book doing really well over here and one that I would be able to recommend. Right now I recommend The Fifth Discipline, The Web of Life and Leadership and the New Sciences as these are already in Portuguese. The other book which is huge right now in Brazil is Business Model Generation and workshops on these always sell out if Alexander Osterwalder comes over. So there is a hunger for learning which is great.

  2. Pingback: On Creativity: Book Review “Orbiting the Giant Hairball” | Transition Consciousness·

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