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Fractured Atlas Book Club: The Advantage

I'm sure you've already read a ton of New Year's articles about getting in shape, eating better, or creating a "healthier you." Let's start 2014 off right with a book club blog post about what makes a healthier company instead. (Before you go much further: I do try to select titles that are equally applicable to both individual arts entrepreneurs and arts organizations. The book we've picked this month is decidedly not for solo ventures, but for companies that have multiple staff members, so feel free to click away from this post if this doesn't apply to you.)

Management consultant Patrick Lencioni has created a whole series of books about making organizations run more effectively. A small sample of his works include:

  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A distillation of the most common problems that can plague any management team, this book also comes in a graphic novel edition!

  • Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars: Patrick Lencioni addresses how to get your organization's leaders all on the same page, breaking through the walls of their department or job description, and aligning them toward a common purpose.

  • Death by Meeting: I think the title says it all. Has anyone not attended a meeting that made them want to dive into a swimming pool filled with staples?

The best thing about these books is the fact that they are "business fiction." They're fables designed to illustrate their points without condescendingly preaching to the reader or prescribing a set of solutions in a detached, clinical way.

And the culmination of Patrick Lencioni's work is this month's book club pick: The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business. Lencioni combines the principles revealed over the course of his previous the-advantagework to outline just what makes your organization function effectively and how to take steps to make it function better. At this point, almost everyone on our staff has read The Advantage and found it extremely valuable. Now, you may be thinking, organizational health? This is the most important thing for my organization to work on? What about mission, values, vision, target audience, programs/services, etc.? Lencioni asserts that none of these things matter if you've got a dysfunctional staff who put office politics ahead of teamwork, who run meetings that do not accomplish concrete goals, and cannot communicate decisions made at the leadership level in a clear way to the rest of the organization.

Lencioni lays out four disciplines in The Advantage:

  1. Build a Cohesive Leadership Team: Who are the core decision-makers in your organization and how can you get them to function as a "team" where everyone is working toward a common goal instead of a "working group" of loosely associated colleagues all with competing sets of priorities? A team must trust each other and embrace constructive conflict. Lencioni recommends using Myers-Briggs personality profiling to better understand your teammates, their interior life, and why do act they way they do.

  2. Create Clarity: An organization that has created clarity for its employees is one where the leadership team has achieved alignment around the big questions about things like the company's reason for being, what it values, and who is responsible for what. Achieving 'alignment' doesn't mean that there's no room for disagreement. In a healthy organization, no one should be afraid of voicing a dissenting opinion, which prevents private, unshared disagreements from festering, but it is important that the leadership team commit to the decisions that it has arrived at collaboratively after open discussion.

  3. Overcommunicate Clarity: When the leadership team arrives at an important decision, it's important for each team member to communicate the important info to the people that directly report to them. And not just once. Lencioni writes that "I've heard claims that employees won't believe what leaders are communicating to them until they've heard it seven times." This is not because your co-workers are particularly dense - it's because a leader's job isn't just to make bold declamations into the vacuum, but to have each employee take the message to heart.

  4. Reinforce Clarity: Wow, three of these disciplines are about clarity. Do you think that might be important? The decisions made by the leadership team need to be imbedded in each aspect of the organization's day-to-day existence. How can each department (from human resources, to accounting, to IT, to administration) better live by the company's core values and achieve the overall mission?

I've said it once, I'll say it again, I would never recommend a book that I found boring, that was over my head, or that I didn't think was helpful to our blog's readers. I will say that this book surprised me in its readability. It won't take you long at all to get through if you think, and I hope that you do, that making your organization healthier is one of the most important things you can do to accomplish your company's goals. Have a happy, healthy 2014 full of good books. See you next month!