Business Book Classics: Up the Organization

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For a long time, we didn’t have to worry about business book “classics” because there just weren’t that many business books. Today gazillions of business books are published every year. Some are great, others are horrid, and the vast majority are mediocre. It’s the bell curve at work.

That’s why it’s worth going back to some high-quality business classics. I call a business book a classic if it was first published more than twenty-five years ago and is still worth reading. Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits by Robert Townsend was published for the first time in 1970.

When there were only very few business books, most were by CEOs and they were pretty straightforward. The CEO told you how they achieved their success. That’s how most business books by CEOs are today, too.

Since business books became popular in the early 1980s, only a few authors have taken the “visitor from Mars” approach. That’s to look at the organization they work for or run and say, “If I had just landed here from another planet and was starting a big company, would I do it the way we’re doing it?” If the answer is no, they want to eliminate stuff. The best “visitor from Mars” books are about common sense in business, written by people who made it work. The best ones are also about eliminating bureaucracy and putting people first.

Ken Iverson’s book about Nucor, Plain Talk, is one of those books. So is Ricardo Semler’s book The Seven-Day Weekend. Up the Organization was the first of the genre.

Townsend was the CEO of Avis from 1962 to 1965. At the time Avis was second to the industry giant, Hertz. Avis gained market share and3 became famous in part because of a wonderful ad campaign based on the theme “We’re number two, so we try harder.” When Up the Organization was published in 1970 it spent 28 weeks on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list.

The Book

Robert Townsend claimed that he never read business books, and the book he wrote doesn’t look like another business book you’ve ever read. The book is an alphabetical listing of topics that he comments on. There are 97 chapters but don’t panic, they’re very, very short, very, very witty, and very, very insightful.

Some of the topics, like “Secretary” and “The Steno Pool,” are like little blasts from the 1970s. You can read past them and not miss much. Big chunks of the business vocabulary are out of date, but you can figure things out easily. Some language would be considered “sexist” today, but that’s not important enough to pass up the wisdom that’s here.

The main reason to read this book is that many of the things that Townsend says are, perhaps surprisingly, still relevant. He advocates getting rid of what was then called the Personnel department, which is now called Human Resources. He suggests getting rid of the whole department and replacing it with a one-person “people department.” He thinks people should set their own working hours. As a “visitor from Mars,” he suggests logical changes that run counter to common business practice then and now.

That’s the value of the book. Even though it was written more than 40 years ago, many of the bureaucratic ideas that Townsend calls out are still common practice. Another advantage of reading the book is that the style is what we would call today, “edgy.”

Bottom Line

The reason you should read Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits today is that it will jog your thinking, just like it did those of us who read it 40 years ago.

Now it’s your turn

What books would you nominate as business book classics?


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