Book Review: Humanocracy

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At the close of his 2007 book, The Future of Management Gary Hamel said this:

“For the first time since the dawning of the industrial age, the only way to build a company that’s fit for the future is to build one that’s fit for human beings as well.”

That was the challenge in 2007. It’s still the challenge. The only change is that Professor Hamel now has identified the reason that we must do more than reform management. We must get rid of bureaucracy, as well.

If You’re in Business, You Should Read This Book

There are two reasons you should read Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as The People Inside Them. First, it will give you ways to observe your organization and come up with new ideas to try. You should also read this book because other people will be talking about it and writing about it. You will get more from your reading or discussions if you read this book.

There’s a lot of value here, but there are dangers as well. So, read the book, but keep your eyes and your mind open.

There are four reasons to be wary of what you read about in Humanocracy.

Don’t Swallow All the Hype About “Bottom Up”

There’s a lot of talk in the book about change from the bottom up. That sounds great until you realize that the examples don’t support the bottom-up statements.

Several of the companies that are held up as humanocracy paragons were founded that way. Two examples are W.L. Gore and Morningstar Tomatoes. They didn’t have to change anything, only evolve.

The rest started as bureaucratic hierarchies. Then a particularly effective and insightful CEO drove change. For examples, there’s Haier, NUCOR, and Handelsbank.

The idea that powerful change can bubble up from the bottom of a bureaucratic organization is a compelling vision. But the examples in Humanocracy don’t support it. The only example I recall is Helen Bevan and the National Health Service of Britain. In the other cases, the founder or CEO was the driving force behind the change.

Professor Hamel Says You Need Courage to Create the Change to Humanocracy

There are several times in the book where Professor Hamel talks about the need for courage. That sounds noble. And, of course, it’s easy to urge someone else to be courageous.

But beware. You don’t need courage unless what you’re doing is dangerous.

Pay attention to everything the author says about the power of an entrenched bureaucracy to defend itself. Then, decide if you want to put your skin in the game. It will be courageous, but is it worth it for you? Only you can decide.

Rose Colored Spectacles

This book is unreservedly optimistic. There’s no discussion of things that might go wrong, either with the revolution or the humanocracy model. What happens when someone in a humanocracy does something that loses a lot of money or endangers the company?

My Biggest Worry

Humanocracy is riddled with the idea that we can create workplaces where hierarchy will not matter. That’s asking human nature to change.

To be fair, the authors have several points where they say they’re not opposed to all hierarchy, only fixed, bureaucratic hierarchy. They also suggest that multiple, dynamic hierarchies should replace fixed hierarchies. That’s good, but not sufficient. I don’t think readers who walk away from the book will remember the distinctions and hierarchy is a powerful thing.

Hierarchy is something human beings crave naturally. It’s hardwired into us. Jordan Peterson puts it this way in 12 Rules for Life.

“The part of our brain that keeps track of our position in the dominance hierarchy is therefore exceptionally ancient and fundamental. It is a master control system, modulating our perceptions, values, emotions, thoughts and actions.”

All our basic organizational models have some form of hierarchy. Watch the way people in a group filing into a meeting room take seats around the table. They leave the spot at the head free for the most important person at the meeting.

Need for hierarchy is human nature. Need for bureaucracy is not. The trick for most reformers will be to use the natural awareness of hierarchy to dismantle bureaucracy.

In A Nutshell

Humanocracy is superbly researched and well-written. Read it for good ideas and thought starters. But there are some dangerous assumptions in Humanocracy.

It’s not clear that much change of the organizational structure can bubble up from the bottom of a bureaucratic organization. Professor Hamel calls for lots of radical change and urges you to be courageous. That’s because it’s dangerous, but the dangers aren’t discussed. Finally, the book implies we can change the natural human need for hierarchy.

Other Resources on Creating People-Centered Organizations

7 Day Weekend by Ricardo Semler

Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan

It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

Plain Talk by Ken Iverson

Powerful by Patty McCord

Team of Teams by Stanley McChrystal

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on GoodReads.


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