Book Review: Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them

Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini have written a new book called Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them. I knew when I saw a book with a provocative title like this that I simply had to read it. And it was worth every word.

The essential premise of the book is that our businesses and workplaces are plagued with bureaucracy and desperately need an overhaul. With the vast experience of the authors, the book brings to light an immense amount of research coupled to real-life examples to make their point.

The book begins making its case by talking about how most of the world was, at one time, ruled by tyrannical monarchies that over time, largely driven from internal visions of self-governance, were shifted to more democratic forms, and it is this move from autocracy to democracy which inspires the shift that Hamel and Zanini say business needs to make.  However, while our social structures have moved on in many ways, our business structures are still burdened with largely autocratic management that “empowers the few at the expense of the many, prizes conformity over originality, wedges humans into narrow roles, and treats them as mere resources.” More succinctly put, bureaucracy has, with its reliance on layer upon layer of policies and restrictions, “shriveled our souls.”

To defeat this antiquated, Industrial Age thinking, the authors propose a move to humanocracy, a term that simply means putting human beings at the center of organizations in place of control and efficiency. One of my early insights about the difference between bureaucratic thinking and humanocratic thinking came in reading this: “The question at the core of bureaucracy is, ‘How do we get human beings to better serve the organization?’ The question at the heart of humanocracy is, ‘What sort of organization elicits and merits the best that human beings can give?” It is this shift from ‘what can employees do for the company’ to ‘what can the company do to inspire the best in employees’ that the book attempts to help us not only make in our heads but actually implement in our organizations.

Once the basic premise is put forth, bureaucracy is put on trial. Hamel and Zanini lay out the ills, complications, and roadblocks bureaucracy creates. From putting too much decision-making authority in too few hands, driving the building of silos, discouraging risk taking, undermining accountability, and devaluing originality, it is very clear how bureaucracy has done much damage and stifled the potential of too many organizations and the people languishing in soul-sucking jobs.

And for those who need proof that the better way the authors propose is not some pie-in-the-sky fantasy, the central section of the book gives us detailed examples of two companies, Nucor and Haier, that have made the leap from stagnating bureaucracy to freer, more human ways of working. The examples present a compelling statement about the real possibility that it can and does work. By giving people more freedom, more autonomy, more information, and more resources, these organizations have created higher levels of engagement, the pride of ownership, and better results.

After presenting these examples, the book gives us a clear description of the necessary elements that make up the DNA of humanocratic organizations. From ownership of results to merit-based advancement to creation of purpose-driven supportive communities to more inclusion and experimentation, the authors lay out what is needed to make the organization of the future what it needs to be.

They then draw a roadmap for how to get there. They give a step by step sequence for leading the journey from soul-crushing bureaucracy to life-giving humanocracy. While they make it clear that this is an uphill struggle, they do it in a way that inspires you to want to raise the banner and lead the charge.

This book is a welcome addition to the growing library dedicated to making work more inspiring, effective, affirming, fun, and yes, human. I highly recommend this book and look forward to any impact it can make for changing the way we work.

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