A Conversation with Luc Hoebeke: Part 2

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Here’s part two of my interview with Luc Hoebeke, the Belgian management thinker and author of Making Work Systems Better: A Practitioners Guide. Hoebeke (pronounced, more or less, “HOO-bay-kuh”) is a RO-heretic: he likes General Theory of Bureaucracy and the original work, but thinks pretty poorly of Requisite Organization. See Part 1 for his particular departures.

Hoebeke authored an article for the recent RO-related book but it was rejected for publication. It was just too outside the orthodoxy to be acceptable. I liked it but couldn’t get it saved. I promised Hoebeke that I would rewrite it, and if I get his permission and the time, I’ll do that and we’ll put it on somewhere that you can see it.

I wonder if Luc would get along with the old Glacier managers.

In this part of the conversation, Hoebeke starts talking about the work of Koldo Saratxaga in IRIZAR’s transformation into one of Europe’s best run companies. Record earnings, expansions, European awards… IRIZAR really is a company on the move. And it does it within a cooperative. There’s even an IRIZAR case study at Harvard Business.

If you think that Hoebeke’s comments are out of the mainstream, you may be interested in reading the comments of another person on the fringe of management, the late Peter Drucker. In an interview in Wired 4.08, Drucker makes many similar comments. “The big companies have no future,” he said. “By and large, there are no more advantages to big business. There are only disadvantages.” He continues:

The model for management that we have right now is the opera. The conductor of an opera has a very large number of different groups that he has to pull together. The soloists, the chorus, the ballet, the orchestra, all have to come together – but they have a common score. What we are increasingly talking about today are diversified groups that have to write the score while they perform.

What you need now is a good jazz group. And if you want to have a really good jazz group, how large can it be? How large can it be when you have people who improvise on their own and the group realizes that the trumpet player is now playing his solo and everybody needs to stop and support him? You can use seven to nine people – maximum. If you get more, you have to score.

So how can you have a big company or a very big organization when you have to develop the score as you go along? Today you build different teams. Sounds beautiful. Yet nobody has really found a way to do it.

[I’ll chime here to note that everyone seems to want us all to be a jazz combo. However, almost no one listens to jazz combos. And sometimes you want something that you cannot do with a small combo. Big bands mix both: there’s some orchestration going on, and generally we know where we are going, but there is still a big function of improvisation.

What Drucker seems to have failed to understand is that jazz combos almost always know where they are going in a performance. They aren’t “developing the score as they go along” but improvising on a predeveloped theme within a group who is quite used to performing together. If you think about it, they are actually performing within a limited discretion: you can play almost anything but you still have to play with the others. You can’t start playing “Stardust” and try to play a totally different key and meter, unless the others will follow along with you.]

Hoebeke argues about there being a cap to how many people you can have in a “company”, and this limit has to do with being able to all know each other. The number he reaches, around 800 or so, is similar to numbers from Wilfred Brown and even the church growth specialists in America. The smaller number, around 200, corresponds to what we know from many studies of human groups, including Dunbar’s notorious number.

What do you think about Luc’s comments?

A Conversation with Luc Hoebeke from April 2007, Part 2 (in enhanced AAC format)

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