Management of the Absurd

by Ron Potter

As I continue the review of some of the books I’ve read through the years, next up is Management of the Absurd by Richard Farson.

Management of the Absurd

A dictionary definition of the word absurd calls it “wildly unreasonable or illogical.”  I consider myself both highly reasonable and logical so this definition didn’t make sense to me.  Which may be why I read it.  My notes alone for the book totaled up to 15 pages so I guess it caught my interest.

This book is written by Richard Farson.  In the book, he lays out eight parts.

  1. A Different Way of Thinking
  2. The “Technology of” Human Relations
  3. The Paradoxes of Communication
  4. The Politics of Management
  5. Organizational Predicaments
  6. Dilemmas of Change
  7. The Aesthetics of Leadership
  8. Avoiding the Future

I’ll quickly touch on each of the eight parts but I think you’ll notice the absurdity in the titles themselves.

A Different Way of Thinking

The most important discoveries come from taking a fresh look at what people take for granted.  They cannot see it because it is too “obvious” or is what they expect to see or not seen.  Farson calls this the invisible obvious.  I’ve often seen when the “expert” doesn’t pay any attention to the new person on the team or someone who doesn’t have the same “expertise” they do on a particular topic.  The absurdity comes from the fact that the best new creative ideas come from the person who is taking a fresh look at a topic.  This can come from the new person or, if you train yourself well, you can provide that fresh look no matter how much of an “expert” you are on a topic.

The “Technology of” Human Relations

Farson says that “The more important a relationship, the less skill matters.”  In both parenthood and management, it’s not so much what we do as what we are that counts.  It is the ability to meet each situation armed not with a battery of techniques but with an openness that permits a genuine response.

Effective leaders and managers do not regard control as the main concern.  Instead, they approach situations as learners or teachers or sometimes both.

My take from this section is the openness and genuine response that people respect and will be motivated by.  Trying to control or dictate situations will not motivate people.

The Paradoxes of Communication

Paradox is another one of those interesting words.  Webster says that it is “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true.”

Listening can also be a disturbing experience.  All of us have strong needs to see the world in certain ways, and when we really listen, so that we understand the other person’s perspective, we risk being changed ourselves.

The best kind of listening comes not from technique but from being genuinely interested in what really matters to the other person.

This is what I have come to think of as listening to understand rather than listening to respond.  Often when we’re listening to the other person, we’re building a list in our head about how were are going to respond.  That’s easier and takes less energy than listening to truly understand what the other person is saying and the belief system they are basing their statement upon.  Listening to understand creates a different set of questions, often forcing the other person to expose their own belief system.

The Politics of Management

Fighting for the rights of special groups has contributed to an erosion of civility.  When people are treated as representatives of special groups, society is fragmented.  The achievement and preservation of the community must become our top priority.  Otherwise, the concept of rights has no meaning.

Organizational Predicaments

Organizations that need help most will benefit from it least.

I experienced this with one client I worked with many years ago.  The head of HR knew that the team needed help and convinced them to employ my services.  After talking with the head of HR, I decided to highly discount my services because I didn’t believe that would have been willing to pay my going fee.  In their mind, they just weren’t in that bad of shape.  After working with the team for almost a year I believed we had learned a lot and gotten much better.  If we were climbing a ten-step ladder, we had just successfully made it up to step one.  However, to the team this was seen as such great strides—they felt like they had reached the top of the ladder.  Because they were so much better than they had been a year ago they no longer had a need for my services.  In their mind, they had achieved everything they could have.

Dilemmas of Change

I’ve talked about the word “dilemma” before.  The foundation is “dilaminent” which meant horns.  Being on the horns of a bull put you in a dilemma.  You’re going to get gored either way.

Our author Farson makes the point that creative ideas are relatively easy to elicit.   Implementing them is a much tougher task.

Farson says that it’s important that we fail.  We need to fail ofter.  If we don’t, it means we’re not testing our limits.

The Aesthetics of Leadership

Farson says, “There are no leaders, there is only leadership.”

One of the great enemies of organizational effectiveness is our stereotypical image of a leader.  We imagine a commanding figure perhaps standing in front of an audience, talking, not listening.  The real strength of a leader is the ability to elicit the strength of the group.  Leadership is less the property of a person than the property of a group.

Avoiding the Future

Farson closes with “If absurdity is ubiquitous, if the most important goals are lost causes, why do we keep playing this absurd game?  We play it because it is the only game in town.  Of course, it is absurd.  Of course, it is only a game.  But it is a game well worth playing and worth playing well.”

Management of the Absurd is a long thought-provoking book.  I have not done it justice in the blog so I suggest you find a copy, read it, and underline it so that you come away with the greatest learnings for you.

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