Book review: Three Ways of Getting Things Done - Gerard Fairtlough

Sep 02

This slim booklet packs an unusually rich harvest of useful ideas between its covers. My copy has 110 pages (it’s the original 2005 edition), including notes, an index and a glossary. So, the argument unfolds on just over 70 pages. However, given the profusion of bloated business books on the market, I consider this kind of modesty on the part of the author a huge advantage for the time-constrained reader.

There are three key messages in this book: first, that there are three, and only three ways “to get things done”, i.e. to coordinate an organisation. These are conceptualised as “hierarchy”, “heterarchy” and “responsible autonomy”. Second, hierarchy has been the most commonly used way of combining system, culture, leadership and power - the four key features of any organisation. Alas, because it is so common, hierarchy is often thought of as the only way. Fairtlough’s third message is that the time is ripe for change. In order to thrive we need to get rid of our addiction to hierarchy, based in our genes and reinforced by a long cultural tradition, and we need to move to more cooperative, smart and accountable ways of organising. Therefore, depending on its purpose and size, organisations will need to blend in various degrees of heterarchy and responsible autonomy in its hierarch-dominated matrix.

There are many levers we can pull to move away from hierarchy. Individual skills, reward systems and more participatory governance systems are just some of the more important ones surveyed in the book.

In a final chapter, the author asks “what is to be done?”. Through the discussion of a number of case studies (all UK-based), Fairtlough identifies a number of hands-on heterarchical practices, such as rotating the position of director every few years or having representatives of all stakeholders on a governing council. In the final few pages of the book, he exhorts us to summon up our energy, courage and imagination to shift our organisational mindset away from the hegemony of hierarchy: “Vast energy presently goes into propping up hierarchy. Releasing this energy for constructive use will bring great and clearly recognisable benefits. It will allow organisations to emerge that are much more effective at getting things done and much better place in which to work.”

All of this may not be rocket-science. We may have read many of these things elsewhere. But Fairtlough discusses his subject with a level-headedness and clarity that is refreshing and very persuasive. Once understood, this triarchic framework becomes a potent tool in decoding organisational practices and governance systems.

I’d like to raise just one point of criticism. This booklet deserves a much better level of finishing than Triarchy Press - a small British publishing house, headed by the author - has been able or willing to offer. It’s a fairly bare bones production as it is (and I still haven’t quite understood what the chimp on the front cover has to do with it). Given the importance of its subject matter and the admirable clarity and conciseness of its discussion, I’m quite sure a more alluring production would attract a much wider readership (I’m thinking of McKenzie Wark’s “A Hacker Manifesto” as a good example).

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