Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Bruce Umbaugh (bumbaugh) Wed 25 Feb 04 19:53
When organizations fail, leaders are often blamed for being inept, overwhelmed, or corrupt. But what if these organizations are only doing what theyre supposed to do? What if every decision is driven by the perceived wants and needs of a Core Group of people "who really matter"? Thats the question addressed by Art Kleiner in his book Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege and Success (Doubleday, 2003). Though Art hasnt been active on the Well in several years (actually, when his first child was born, something had to give) he helped to found it (he has a bit part in Katie Hafners history). He was, at the time, the telecommunications editor of the Whole Earth Software Catalog and an editor of CoEvolution Quarterly (forerunner to Whole Earth). He first wrote about the internet (or, rather, its precursors) in 1979, as a graduate student in journalism at UC Berkeley (that article was published eventually in the Whole Earth Catalog). Later on, he covered Silicon Valley for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and upon moving to New York in 1986, he joined the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, where he still teaches scenario planning and writing. His website is reachable through http://www.well.com/user/art or http://www.artkleiner.com. Starting in the late 1980s, Art began writing mostly about management. His books on the subject include business bestsellers (The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook series with Peter Senge), and critically acclaimed histories (The Age of Heretics, 1996). His column, "Culture and Change," appears in Strategy & Business. At MITs Center for Organizational Learning, Art co-created a pioneering form of organizational story-telling, the "Learning History." Hes also had an ongoing career as a ghostwriter, working with (among others) Peter Schwartz ("The Art of the Long View"/"Inevitable Surprises"), Arie de Geus ("The Living Company") and Kenichi Ohmae ("The Invisible Continent.") And he is the research and publications director of Dialogos, an innovative consulting firm based in Cambridge, MA. Who Really Matters has been praised by Jim Collins (author of the bestseller Good to Great) as a "central truth about the way organizations work," and by Harvard Business School historian Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. as "a critical way of understanding success and failure." In a book club mailing to Global Business Network, poet and educator Betty Sue Flowers wrote: "If Machiavelli had looked at organizations rather than princes, he might have written this book. And if Freud had looked at management rather than the psyche, he might have uncovered, as this book does, how power really works." Art and his wife, experimental psychologist Faith Florer, have three daughters Frances, Elizabeth, and Constance, ages 5, 3 and 1. And two dogs. They live outside New York City, in a James Thurber-esque (or perhaps Jon Katz-esque) neighborhood: a somewhat rundown early-suburban house, perennially under construction, scowling to the world, soft on the inside. Joe Flower leads the conversation here. He is a futurist specializing in healthcare. Like Art, he has been associated with the Global Business Network, co-authoring "Chinas Futures" with Jay Ogilvy and Peter Schwartz in the late 1990s. He is the founder of Imagine What If , an education company and a frequent speaker on healthcare, technology, the future, and the nature of organizational change. For over 20 years, Joe has interviewed the leading thinkers on organizations and how they work, including Jim Collins, Peter Senge, and Peter Drucker and Art, on a previous occasion for healthcare industry journals. Welcome to the Inkwell, both of you!
Joe Flower (bbear) Thu 26 Feb 04 16:12
Great. This is a fascinating book -- it takes an "Oh, duh!" and turns it into a major insight and tool of analysis. I remember my first job, in (I think) 1969, for Lockheed. What I got very quickly was that the whole purpose of the job was to keep certain bigwigs happy -- but exactly who they were, how they got to be there, and what exactly would keep them happy was this huge mystery, and the subject of endless study and speculation. Everyone knows this about organizations. But when it comes to management writing, nobody admits it. Now Art has gone and built his whole theory about it. So, Art: It's clear that the Core Group (the people Who Really Matter) is not synonymous with upper management, or key investors, or the board. Whether you are inside an organization or outside it, how can you tell who really is in the Core Group, and who is not?
Art Kleiner (art) Thu 26 Feb 04 18:43
Joe, I'm so pleased to be doing this interview.... I don't want to open with treacle-y effusiveness, so I'll confine myself to that opening... and let the effusiveness trickle in as we go.... In any case, thank you for the compliments. The Core Group is a cognitive construct. By which I mean that all the people who work for an organization decide, collectively, who the Core Group is. That definition has led at least one critic (on Amazon.com) to argue that the whole "Core Group" concept is circular, and essentially without substance, but I personally believe perceptions run the world. The Core Group is the group of people that a prevailing number of people believe to be important. That belief, in turn, determines who actually IS important. So how do you find out who's in the Core Group? You ask people. Preferably a large enough sample to get an aggregate impression. I've tried that exercise (and, in fact, I'd love to keep trying it) with people who work in different parts of the same large organization, and I've been impressed with the fact that they tend to agree. On a flip chart page, we mock up an organization chart, the formal kind -- and then we color in those positions where Core Group members reside. And then we draw the links between them. And then on another chart we look at how those individuals' status has changed over time. It has turned out, in the times I've tried it, to be an unexpectedly revealing map of the patterns of prevailing influence; it tends to show the reasons why certain things happen or don't happen. I did it with four people from a high-tech midwest company not long ago, and it charted the rise of a small group of engineers who, by virtue of their ability to stay in the Core Group through a set of turbulent executive-suite coups and upheavals, ended up virtually running the company. I recommend doing this quietly, with circumspection. The point isn't to challenge the organization, but to learn more about it.
Joe Flower (bbear) Thu 26 Feb 04 19:31
I was struck by what you said at one point: "They aren't all the decision-makers; they are all the people the decision-makers keep in mind." That is, when deciding anything, the people in the organization, consciously or not, will be thinking, "What will Frank think of this?" or, "I don't want Kathy walking in my door fuming over this." It is an important definition. But what makes it useful?
Art Kleiner (art) Fri 27 Feb 04 06:26
First of all, it lays a stake in the ground: EVERYONE's decisions are important. In other words, Frederick Taylor was precisely wrong. The senior people may know better, but the direction of the organization depends on how well people throughout the organization take that "better" knowledge, assimilate it, and use it. Do I have to defend that position? It isn't a slam-dunk. And a lot of people who talk as if they agree with it actually don't -- when push comes to shove, you can see they don't believe it. But what they get, then, is ignorant -- or, if you prefer, "sub-optimal" -- organizations. But. If you think everyone's decisions are important, and if you see the Core Group's perceived needs and priorities as the magnetic direction that everyone's decisions point to (in aggregate, at least), then there are at least four groups of people who can get (in my opinion) a "so-what" out of this: 1. Members of the Core Group (who have huge leverage over the future of the organization, if not its present); 2. Employees who are not (and probably never will be) in the Core Group; 3. People who take seriously the idea that the organization must change for the better; 4. People who want to influence the organization from the outside. Each of these has a different strategy to follow.
Joe Flower (bbear) Fri 27 Feb 04 18:44
Let's come back to those strategies in a moment. First, though, a personal note: I was struck, reading the book, with the thought, "This is why I have never been comfortable working in an organization: I have never been in the Core Group anywhere. And I have never been comfortable bending all my thoughts and actions to serve someone else's perceived needs. This is an explanation of the shape of my whole career trajectory." Against that background, tell me about love.
Art Kleiner (art) Fri 27 Feb 04 21:08
Whew. Joe, believe it or not, I never quite realized that particular implication of this material before. Speaking of Core Groups, my three-year-old daughter just woke up. I'm going to go up and put her back to bed, and come back and answer this probably tomorrow. ArtK
Get Shorty (esau) Sat 28 Feb 04 00:04
"Bending all my thoughts and actions to serve someone else's perceived needs" is a rather extreme way to see working in an organization. A dysfuntional one, perhaps, one in which you feel you feel that the people you work for are only motivated by personal power and wealth or, worse, you feel they are deeply incompetent. But in a well-functioning organization, the Core Group's perceived needs and decisions are for the benefit of everyone in the company. If you can understand (and believe in) the motivations of the Core Group, it seems you could derive great happiness -- or at least a decent wage and quiet satisfaction -- from helping them achieve their goals. And if their decision are the right ones, you'll follow them up as they gain prestige and influence.
Art Kleiner (art) Sat 28 Feb 04 02:08
The part I never realized before is this: Who Really Matters is, in a way, a defense of organizations. Much of the book is right with you, Esau -- saying that, in a well-functioning organization, you can have a highly fulfilled career whether you're in the Core Group or not. (Of course, in the best organizations, everyone who works there is, in a sense, part of the Core Group. But those are rare, because it takes a lot of careful design to create them.) What I didn't explicitly realize before is this: The extent to which some people will NEVER feel comfortable with organizations, precisely because they instinctively mistrust Core Group dynamics. They don't like the way it looks in others, and they don't like the way it feels in themselves. If the economy permits it, and they're capable enough, those are the ones who become entrepreneurs. Their customers and clients become their Core Group. Or perhaps just the customers and clients whom they perceive as being important. Unless you're not just independently wealthy but independent of needing anything from the rest of humanity, I don't think you can escape Core Group dynamics. That's a fairly bleak-sounding statement, but it isn't meant to be. Because I also think we have a fair amount of choice these days, even in a relatively tight economy, about the Core Groups we can potentially get involved with.
Art Kleiner (art) Sat 28 Feb 04 02:30
<scribbled by art Sat 28 Feb 04 02:39>
Art Kleiner (art) Sat 28 Feb 04 02:38
Joe, your question about love naturally leads me to write a little bit about the idea that organizations are sentient creatures -- vast and immature ones -- who fall in love. The Core Group are the people they fall in love with. The organization acts as most of us do with our beloveds, at least while we're infatuated with them: Trying to anticipate their needs and wants, without directly asking; thinking about them all the time; indulging them; and seeking to deepen our connection with them. So for instance, ITT hired a publicist to buy up its CEO Rand Araskog's remaindered books, but they didn't want him to suffer the indignity of walking past the dollar-a-book table at the Strand in New York and seeing his book there. (Is that a thoughtful, romantic gesture, or what?) When an individual falls in love with you, that gives you a certain amount of responsibility -- or, if you prefer, power and potential for exploiting them. When an organization falls in love with you, the potential for exploitation is immense. Especially unconscious exploitation. And little exploitations get magnified tremendously. But so, as Esau points out, is the potential for accomplishing truly worthy and remarkable things. There's an article in the current New York Magazine in which Naomi Wolf describes her response to a 20-year-old sexual harassment by Harold Bloom, formerly her professor. She names Bloom, and names herself -- but she BLAMES Yale University. She's not pissed off at Bloom; she's pissed off at the Core Group of the university, which is apparently closing ranks to protect Bloom and other high-level professors. Whether or not you think Wolf is being fair to either Bloom or Yale -- and my own opinion depends on knowing some facts about the story which have already been disputed (like did Yale's officials respond to Wolf's questions or didn't they?) -- there's pretty clearly a Core Group love story operating here. It's a triangle: Wolf in love with Yale, and Yale in love with Bloom. Here's Naomi Wolfs article: <http://www.newyorkmetro.com/nymetro/news/features/n_9932/>; And heres a dissenting article in the New York Observer: <http://www.observer.com/pages/frontpage4.asp>
Dan Levy (danlevy) Sat 28 Feb 04 02:51
What did you find out when you asked people who were identified as being in the Core Group whether they thought of themselves as being in the Core Group? I wonder whether the consensus opinions about who are members is usually congruent with the self-assessments of those so-called insiders. And...hi, Art!
Art Kleiner (art) Sat 28 Feb 04 02:52
Conversely, for a couple of stories of really good Core Groups, check out the current Fortune Magazine, March 8 issue, p. 190B: "Heroes of Manufacturing," about American Axle and Manufacturing and Cognex Corp. At least they sound like really good Core Groups, although they're written in the "heroic CEO" vein. Here's the URL for that: <http://www.fortune.com/fortune/imt/0,15704,592506,00.html>.
Art Kleiner (art) Sat 28 Feb 04 02:58
Hi, Dan! Um.... I never have quite gone up to someone and said, "Are you in the Core Group or not?" What I have done is, in talks and sessions, asked: "How many people in the room believe they are, or were, in a Core Group?" Typically about 1/4 to 1/3 of the people in the room might raise their hand. And their stories are about finding out (sometimes to their surprise, sometimes according to their plan) that the organization was catering to them in some consistent way that was over the top.... I should add that, because the boundaries of the Core Group are set by the aggregate of peoples' perception, they aren't rigid. People pop into and out of the Core Group, and the Core Group of one part of an organization can be different from the Core Group of another part. I think most people who have some Core Group status would recognize themselves as having it. If you ask them, "Are you in the 'Core Group,' they might say no." But if you say, "Do you have a presence in the organization, so that people are continually aware of what's important to you and they try to fulfill it," they'd answer yes. Sometimes, "Hell, yes!"
jane hirshfield (jh) Sat 28 Feb 04 10:02
Do you make any ethnological tie-ins in your thinking about this, Art? I'm guessing that something similar goes on in its own way in primate communities, wolf packs, etc. Perhaps the Core Group is the "real" pecking order in an organization?
Joe Flower (bbear) Sat 28 Feb 04 13:42
>they instinctively mistrust Core Group dynamics. They don't >like the way it looks in others, and they don't like the way it feels >in themselves I'd say that's a fair description of my scattered interactions with organizations over the years. Which is why I have been a freelancer for so many years. Now, however, I am starting my own companies. They are still small, but already I can feel the charm of the fact that there are other people waiting for my direction, and trying to figure out what would please me, what would help my projects, and so forth. For the first time, I have managed to be in a Core Group -- by creating it myself.
Andrew Alden (alden) Sat 28 Feb 04 14:18
I've always wanted to matter in the companies I've been in. Never quite happened. But I've spent half my working life outside companies, and until now I've never asked how and whether I matter to myself. Is a Core Group, somewhere, essential in everyone's life?
Art Kleiner (art) Sun 29 Feb 04 03:10
Jane, I tried to look at sociobiological sources, and discovered I was so much a babe in the woods (urk), in terms of being able to trust my sources, that I ultimately decided not to pursue that analogy at all. Do wolves and dogs have Core Groups? Do chimpanzees? For that matter, do human families and tribes? In my SPECIFIC meaning of Core Group-- thepeople whose interests you keep in mind when you make a decision -- the answer is, well, probably. I certainly see it in my daughters; my middle daughter, Elizabeth, sometimes internalizes the interests of my oldest daughter, Frances. "Is this your toy, Frances? Everyone leave this alone, it's Frances' toy!" But that doesn't keep her from squabbling when it's a toy she really wants. So if that's a kind of universal analogy for Core Group behavior, it suggests that Core Group behavior is pretty weak. And it only picks up strength because it gets amplified by the nature of the organization, where people pick up Core Group signals from each other, and where decisions tend to become aggregated together, so the Core Group direction is the only common purpose that people really have.
Art Kleiner (art) Sun 29 Feb 04 03:12
Joe, I never really saw "Core Groups" as anything worth writing about until I started my own little company -- and saw the difference between people doing things for me (which they do in any organization if my rank is appropriate) and people trying to anticipate my needs and priorities (which was suddenly part of their job....)
Art Kleiner (art) Sun 29 Feb 04 03:18
And then the question: Is a Core Group essential in everyone's life? In other words, if Core Groups didn't exist, would we have to invent them? I came to believe that they are a natural human response to the complexity of modern life -- perhaps the complexity of life in general. In the same way that babies recognize faces before recognizing anything else, we tend to think of complex decisions in terms of the people around us. (I'm not sure that's universal, actually. I have noticed that there are people whose first instinct is analytical, and they don't think of complex decisions in terms of other people at all. But again, in aggregate, the decisions add up to a reinforcement of the perceived needs and priorities of some group of people in the system.) I think there's a big difference between organizations and communities/societies. And then I think there's another question that can be asked of any individual: "Who is in YOUR Core Group?" And as a corollary: "Are you in your own Core Group?" (and in my case, there's a lot of juice in the question: "HOW are you in your own Core Group?"
Gerry Feeney (gerry) Sun 29 Feb 04 11:10
Hello, Art. Great discussion. Are you familiar with Chester Barnard's notion of the "Informal Organization?" (I think it was in his 1938 book _The Functions of the Executive_, but I'm not certain.) If so, did that an influence your work on the Core Group Theory?
from MARY ANN ALLISON (tnf) Sun 29 Feb 04 13:09
Mary Ann Allison writes: On the topic of love, having been both inside and outside core groups, it seems to me that--whether or not people would actually use this label--being inside the core does feel like being loved. I wonder if this feeling increases confidence and the ability to perform? A version of the Cinderella affect? And, the converse as well? Does feeling "not loved" decrease performance level? Separately, Art, have you investigated whether core groups have the topology of scale- free, evolutionary networks which feature hubs (Barabasi's book, Linked, The New Science of Networks)? It seems to me they might.
from L.P. PICCOLAPESCE (tnf) Sun 29 Feb 04 18:46
L.P. Piccolapesce writes: Re Art's comment "I have noticed that there are people whose first instinct is analytical, and they don't think of complex decisions in terms of other people at all," though the analytical results will probably be put to the service of the Core Group, Have you incorporated any of the Myers Briggs typology into your considerations? This distinction suggests F (feeling) vs T (thinking) response. And the dysfunctional catering to Core Group members you describe in the book sounds as though F's would be more vulnerable to it. I am also interested in the Core Group as constituting Ichak Adizes' locus of "Influence," which must coalesce with "Power" and "Authority" to accomplish anything. Or perhaps your point is that real Influence so affects the motivation of power and authority that it is ascendant over them. Wonderful conversation, and great/unexpectedly moving book! L.P. Piccolapesce
from RON BEAN (tnf) Sun 29 Feb 04 19:39
Ron Bean writes: What I get from the book is that you don't have to be in the core group, but you'll have a hard time if the core group's goals are incompatible with your own goals. The problem is when the core group sends mixed messages about what it's real goals are (as opposed to what they think they're supposed to say). In that case it may take several years to figure out that you're wasting your time and you'd be better off working for someone else [Don't Ask Me How I Know This]. This shouldn't have to be a guessing game (unless they're deliberately trying to mislead people, but despite Enron etc I don't think that's as common as simple "failure to communicate"). >(Of course, in the best organizations, everyone who works there >is, in a sense, part of the Core Group. But those are rare, >because it takes a lot of careful design to create them.) They're rare in terms of percentages, especially if you're only looking at large organizations. But I think there may be quite a lot of them in terms of absolute numbers, especially smaller companies that don't call much attention to themselves (and don't have outside shareholders). All that "careful design" work is worth the effort, though. I'd rather do things that are hard but effective, than easy but ineffective. Apparently not everyone thinks that way... >Because I also think we have a fair amount of choice these days, >even in a relatively tight economy, about the Core Groups we can >potentially get involved with. Yes, if you know what you're looking for (it's not always obvious). Then the hard part is finding them-- companies often talk about what they'd like to be doing, rather than what they're actually doing (stock analysts have this problem also). You need to get them to tell detailed stories about themselves in the past tense (preferably recent past). All of this has nothing to do with what business they're in, which is what the job-hunting gurus seem to concentrate on. >"Who is in YOUR Core Group?" Po Bronson asks "Who is in your inner circle?" Meaning, who are you trying to impress? (This is apparently a reference to an essay by CS Lewis).
Art Kleiner (art) Mon 1 Mar 04 00:05
Re #20: I went to look up Barnard, expecting to find an antecedent to the Core Group idea. He was an influence in the sense of being the originator of a chain of thinking -- around the different ways in which employees follow directives and the ways in which managers can manage informality effectively. But his audience was the manager, trying to figure out how best to deal with the complexities of employees. And I didn't find what I was looking for when I read him, which was an explanation of why some authority figures are legitimate and others are not. His successor as an AT&T-based management expert, Robert Greenleaf, came closer with the idea of Servant Leadership. But Greenleaf was talking about an ideal, and one that is only reached sporadically, I think.
Art Kleiner (art) Mon 1 Mar 04 00:16
Mary Ann, re your two questions in #21: Does being "loved" by the organization increase performance? In some people it does, I think. But I think in others, it detracts from performance. How many people "beloved" by organizations essentially spend their time cultivating that belovedness instead of actually producing better results more effectively? Does being dismissed by the organization decrease performance? I'm reluctant to say Yes, in any blanket way, just as I don't fully buy the idea that being bullied produces low self-esteem which then leads to low performance in life. I think different people respond in different ways. To paraphrase Rex Stout, one could write an encyclopedia about the behavior of people when maligned by their fellow human beings. Plus, being Out of the Core Group, in my experience, is not always a bad thing. Your second question is on Network Theory, and I was definitely influenced by Karen Stephenson, whose research into networks identifies three key figures: Hubs, Gatekeepers, and Pulsetakers. I don't know Barabasi's book well; I skimmed it and didn't find myself drawn in. Nor do I think Hubs are necessarily Core Group members. Or Gatekeepers or Pulsetakers, for that matter. (Hubs are people with lots of connections, people through whom information flows; gatekeepers control access to a critical function or part of the organization; and pulsetakers are aware of the flows around them. They sort of correspond to Malcolm Gladwell's "mavens" -- and "hubs" correspond to his "connectors." The Core Group is definitely an informal group. But the real use of network theory vis-a-vis Core Groups, I think, is in mapping and understanding the links between the Core Group and the rest of the organization. Most f the Social Network people gather their data by surveying or observing people, and I think Core Group awareness could mesh well with that... but so far, no one has done that kind of research.
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