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Book Review: The Living Organization by Norman Wolfe

December 22, 2011

The Living OrganizationThere is much discussion in the business world as to what has happened in the economy and how it affects our business models. Most business owners with whom I speak agree that things have permanently changed. What that means to the business is that we need a new model, a new way of thinking about our businesses so that we don’t fall into the trap of trying to do the same things over and over, faster and faster and expect different results.

Norman Wolfe has provided such a model and while the concept of “living organization” isn’t particularly new (Wharton School used the metaphor years ago) Wolfe has taken the concept much farther and added to it a more complete explanation of the interaction between the Living Organization, the energies created and the manifestation of results. In the spirit of full disclosure, it is important to note that Norman and I spoke frequently during his work on this book, and so I am familiar with his concepts.

Wolfe’s work starts out “simply” enough as he explains his analogy for viewing corporations and organizations as a “living” organism, such as the human body. He quickly makes it clear that he intends to carry the model further by adding in his in organizational development and strategy execution to the model. His engineering background shines through as he takes an obvious systems view to building the new model.

Perhaps the piece with the biggest impact in our thinking will be to wrap our minds around the concept of “context” which Norman adds to the model. This is a critical piece as a pivotal point in this model is to understand how energy flows or is “pinched off” by our processes. The analogy brings many challenging issues in organization development and change management into clear focus. To give us a visual, the author had to build a three dimensional model for how the organization actually works. He marries the usual “Process, People, Customer, Finance” understanding of the business with the “Activity, Relationship, Context” (ARC) vertical dimension.

The result of all this hard work is a very robust model for how any organization functions which in turn provides a clear view of how to address the inefficiencies we might be seeing. Another intriguing point is that this model doesn’t negate most of the other representations and models to which I’ve been exposed over the years. Instead, it has filled in the holes and given me a new perspective of those models, why they work and how to effectively extend them.

So if you are still trying to figure out what’s going on in the business world, and if you still struggle to see how your business model is relevant or what needs to change, then Wolfe’s book will definitely put you on the right path to evaluating your present business values and how you can re-think your model to gain extraordinary results for your people and your customers. Wolfe will take you through the process of building this complex model in a step by step fashion. When you get through that complexity (which you easily can with his expert guidance), you will realize the simplicity of the underlying structure. Find the true reason for your organization’s existence, what Wolfe calls its “Soulful Purpose,” and everything else will, with time and attention, fall into place. Every leader in any organization (profit, not for profit, public, private, large, small) would do well to read this book.

 Click here to see the book on Amazon.

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