Quality Magazine

Quality Remix: A Must-Read, Part II

May 10, 2010

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series on Peter Block and his 2002 book, The Answer to How is Yes. Read part one here.

In Part 2 of his book, Block claims that we need to develop a foundation of three qualities to make full use of the Yes questions. These three qualities are reawakening our idealism, cultivating our ability to become more intimate with our environment, and our willingness to choose depth in the face of an ever-quickening pace of modern life. Block argues that we have “forsaken idealism for cynicism, forgone intimacy for consumption and virtual experience… and in an effort to go fast, we sacrifice depth.” And I love this statement: “When we lose idealism, intimacy, and depth, we function at a cosmetic level, pushed along by fashion, out of touch with our center, and we react as if we are the effect of the culture, rather that its cause.”

I wonder how many times I’ve heard a speaker at some business conference decry the difficulty of transforming organizational culture. Perhaps Block is onto something important here. Perhaps we have misunderstood our relationship with culture. What if we are the cause of culture, rather than its effect?

The last half of the book, Parts 3 and 4, explore the full implications of what it means to claim full citizenship in the world. By full citizenship, Block is not talking about citizenship in a nation or other political entity. He is talking about stepping up to full responsibility for the well-being of our world.

“We must act as if our institutions are ours to create, our learning is ours to define, the leadership we seek is ours to become.” With chapter titles like “Home School Yourself” and “Oh, by the Way…You Have to Give Up Your Ambition,” and, my personal favorite, “Your Boss Doesn’t Have What You Want,” don’t be surprised to find you’re on a wild ride. This section will shake up your view of the old command-and-control paradigm. Oddly I found the message more inspirational than threatening. I say oddly because I’m well-practiced in the world of command-and-control. Instead, I find myself wanting to hand the book out to friends, family, colleagues and customers.

Block concludes by developing portraits of four archetypes that we find in business today. Engineers and economists dominate our current business environment, and have much to contribute to our world. But, Block argues, their values act to constrain our future, rather than create it. Under the guidance of engineers and economists, the future is much like the past, only more efficient. “Instead of creating a future, the economist and the engineer focus on predicting and controlling it.”

Against these archetypes, Block introduces the artist. The artist archetype is least compatible with the business world because the artist thrives on surprise and emotion. The artist is, by design, a permanent outsider, and views commerce with suspicion. You can’t get much further polarized than the engineer/economist and the artist.

Block’s fourth archetype is the one he sees as the model for leadership: the architect. The architect forms a bridge between the poles of engineer/economist and artist. Architects bring the best of all worlds together: the aesthetic and ultilitarian; the subjective and the practical. The business leader as architect is a role for bosses and employees. The business leader as architect makes space for what matters, names the questions, initiates new conversations for learning, and designs strategies for empowerment, consent, and local choice.

You may feel the earth shake under your feet when you read The Answer to How is Yes. That’s a good sign that you’re paying attention.

What about you? Have you read The Answer to How is Yes or any other Block books? What are your thoughts on his arguments (or at least how I’ve interpreted them)? Do you have any suggestions for “must-read” books that have made the earth shake under your feet?