Customer Reviews: Leading Outside the Lines: How to Mobilize the Informal Organization, Energize Your Team, and Get Better Results
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VINE VOICEon August 22, 2010
Leading outside the lines from Jon Katzenbach and Zia Khan (K&K) provides a comprehensive guide to current thinking about the operational aspects of culture and informal systems. The book is based on Katzenbach and Khan's personal work and selected published research and case studies. It provides a well written overview of thoughts and practices for working the informal aspects of your organization.

Overall the book is good as it reflects the state of the practice, particularly thinking before 2005 and the advent of social media. The book is recommended for students of social and cultural subjects, so if you like to reach about change management, systems thinning (ala Senge) and the like, then this book would be a welcome addition to your reading. Corporate executives, HR professionals and people who study leadership will also find benefits from this book as it provides a helpful advice that is consistent with their understanding of the enterprise.

Unfortunately, readers looking to understand how to manage the informal systems of the future will find his book limited as it is based on the world prior to social media. That is the reason behind the three star reviews and ultimately why I believe that this book has greater applicability for niche groups rather than general managers.


The book provides clear advice and an explanation of informal systems. It is a practioner's view, rather than a sociologist's view, which is welcome.

The examples and case studies for each of the major points, which help the reader, understand the recommendations in action.

The openness to use research, insights and publications of others like Peter Drucker. This gives the book a solid research base and helps the reader understand the state of the practice.

The book does a good job of avoiding becoming a commercial for the author's consulting organization and practice.


Although published in 2010, the book discusses a world before the adoption and application of social media to informal structures. This limits the book's support for people looking to use informal/social technologies to support social systems. This is a significant challenge.

The book is repetitive about the differences between the formal and informal and a bit dogmatic regarding the weaknesses and limitations of formal organizations. It is understandable that the authors would downplay formal systems, but the treatment and sometime dismissal of formal systems limits the applicability of the advice in the book.

The examples and advice, while helpful, have an unusual bias - the proactive actions of leaders and their use of top-down authority to influence informal systems. The authors seem to imply, but never state that top-down activities - a formal system - can manage the informal system. This may be due in part of the term 'leadership' in the title, but their is a undercurrent throughout the book that informal systems are uninformed, lack direction and are just waiting to be led by someone in a position of authority.

Some of the advice is more common knowledge than interesting insight. The case examples involve insights such as asking for volunteers, clear communication, active participation, etc. These are things that leaders know and have traditionally associated with formal systems. So not much new news here.
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on April 29, 2010
I recently read Jon Katzenbach and Zia Khan's new book, Leading Outside the Lines. Always slightly skeptical of so-called leadership books, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the wealth of information that the authors provide in their new publication, and appreciated the cheerful, intelligent and not overly academic tone in which the book is written. As a small business owner with a growing team, I appreciate management advice that is actually actionable. I was happy to recognize some aspects of my current management style (i.e. finding "informal" ways for employees to communicate, share perspectives and take joint pride in successes) and found many more that I'll be adding to my managerial toolkit. The authors argue that transformational businesses will leverage the informal organization to outperform those operating merely in the formal realm. Along the way, they managed to inspire me to make my business one of the outperformers. A great read.
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on May 25, 2010
In the crowded space of books about leadership, this one stands out as a wise and clear-eyed collection of insights, all backed by the rich experience of two people who have an unusual degree of empathy. Khan and Katzenbach share a unique ability to sense where the real problem is, to understand where the barriers to change lie, and to gently develop ways to overcome them. They write with humility and respect for the clients from whom they learned.

The primary message of the book--that emotions matter in making lasting change happen--is elegantly argued, and the heroes of mobilizing the 'informal organization' to achieve better results deserve having their song be sung. The examples are excellent, and I found myself trolling around the internet looking for details on each one to learn more.

The secondary message of the book, one that is not pulled into the forefront but is as important as all of the concrete lessons the authors prescribe, is the power of empathy. The authors are highly sensitive to personal and team dynamics, and are therefore able to not only mobilize those powers within a company, but reinforce and unleash them as an engine of productivity.

Since it aims to be a tool-kit and how-to guide, the book does not explore the reasons why people are challenged by practicing empathy, and why it is actually very difficult for many 'leaders' to embrace the openness and democracy of the informal. The creativity and team-energy can seem threatening to some--in its next edition, the authors might elaborate a bit on how to get comfortable in this new territory.

Overall, this is an excellent book for anyone aspiring to lead, create or shape an organization. May the cohort of CEOs who embrace this approach blossom and grow!
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Animal metaphors remain popular among authors of business books. Credit Jon Katzenbach and Zia Khan with taking full advantage of a term they first encountered during a meeting with Mark D. Wallace, then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations during the (George H.W.) Bush administration. "Fast zebras was one of Wallace's favorite metaphors for those people who have the ability to absorb information and adapt to sudden challenges capably and quickly...The fast zebra is, in essence, a person who knows how to draw on both the formal and informal organizations with equal facility."

Especially now during this severe economic depression/recession/whatever, I wholly agree with Katzenbach and Khan that "fast zebras can help the stiff joints of overly formal organizations move smoothly [and expeditiously] again. They help the formal organization get unstuck when surprises come its way, or when it's time to head in a new direction. They have the ability to understand how the organization works, and the street smarts to figure out how to get around stubborn obstacles. They draw on values and personal relationships to help people make choices that align with overall strategy and get around misguided policy. They draw on networks to form teams that collaborate on problems not owned by any formal structure. They tap into different sources of pride to motivate the behaviors ignored by formal reward systems."

Although Dave and Wendy Ulrich do not characterize change agents as "fast zebras," they would agree that leaders such as they are needed to establish and then sustain what the Ulrichs characterize as an "abundant" organization in their new book, The Why of Work. Moreover, Katzenbach and Khan note that "it can be lonely to be the only fast zebra at the watering hole. So wise leaders identify their fast zebras and help create conditions that will attract more of their kind. By creating a herd, leaders can accelerate more quickly and on a broader scale than any one fast zebra could on its own."

So this book is about how and why formal managers should make purposeful use of informal networks to achieve a goal or bring about a change while realizing that informal initiatives alone are insufficient to effective response to either a crisis or an opportunity. Formal and informal management of both formal and informal initiatives are needed to achieve the given strategic objectives. The "fast zebras" need to be released from arbitrary and unnecessary constraints so that organizations can benefit from their unique and invaluable ability to "navigate treacherous waters of complexity," both internally and externally, as well as the wisdom to cultivate the informal relationships that will guide them to perform well. What is more important, however, is that even though "the instinctive fast zebras are rare, most people in most organizations have the potential to improve those skills."

Those who read this book are urged to retain and strengthen their formal management approaches - but realize their limitations; to avoid viewing the informal organization as subordinate, inferior, and "unruly chaos" because it can be supervised and energized to accelerate high-impact results and achieve strategic imperatives; and meanwhile, to refuse to manage the informal with the techniques that work for the formal because that "will only make things worse."

As I read the final chapter of this brilliant book, I was again reminded of what then chairman and CEO of 3M, William L. McKnight, observed in 1924: "If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need." This is especially true of zebras, as Jon Katzenbach and Zia Khan make crystal clear throughout this book. Most workers in the right environment -- one that achieves and sustain a correct balance of what is formal and informal, one that provides effective leadership both inside and outside the "lines" -- can develop zebra-like qualities and capabilities. At least a few of them will be very fast but still need to be fed, guided, and on occasion protected.
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on September 28, 2011
"An easy read-I am recommending not so much for big gigantic new ideas, but enough small tidbits to get some new ideas. As with all of these leadership type books, the thoughts rely on honest leaders to generate new synergies. The theme of this book is that there is a formal process and it is very important to unleash the informal process that relies within. There are some ideas that I have already implemented at Blue Ridge with immediate results in productivity, so the book paid for itself quickly."
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on May 20, 2010
It's difficult to find a management book that can can demystify the challenges of workplace culture, but Katzenbach and Khan provide a clear and informative explanation in this book - plus it's a pleasure to read. This book would be a great choice for any manager or business owner faced with the common challenge of motivating their staff. The case studies are varied and compelling and the learnings can be applied across pretty much any type of business.
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on May 19, 2010
Excellent Read! If you're looking for a book that'll give you the "scoop" on formal and informal organizations, this is IT! I've read a ton of leadership books in my day, but I've yet to find a book that will give an in-depth "real world" analysis of what drives today's best leaders. That is until now! Do yourself a favor and add this to your collection.
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on January 28, 2011
Leading Outside the Lines is a must read, especially for organizations with an expense control culture. Read how the author explains how to make employees stand and think to make their workplace better environment; and more profitable. Combine this book with Michael Hammer's 1997 "Beyond Reengineering" and you will the have the how-to data of giving the knowledge worker the space to create.
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on May 19, 2010
"Leading Outside the Lines" is one of those rare books that is not only easy to read but also focuses on the people side of companies. The authors provide readers with in-depth case studies and examples of companies that have embraced employee culture to drive business and become industry leaders. This is a must read for all companies that floundered during the economic crisis and are ready to get back on track.
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on May 24, 2010
Jon Katzenbach and Zia Khan systematically explore the formal and informal elements of an organization. As the authors highlight repeatedly, the key challenge is how to integrate the two types of mechanisms that give an organization its distinctive DNA over time.

Katzenbach and Khan urge leaders to keep and strengthen their formal managerial approaches to their business i.e., strategy, structures, processes and procedures, programs and initiatives, and performance goals and metrics. These formal building blocks bring precision and permanence to the organization. At the same time, the authors encourage leaders to recognize the limitations of these formal mechanisms in their pursuit of superior performance. Leaders also have to identify and cultivate the informal building blocks of their organization. These informal (outside the lines) building blocks regroup shared value, informal networks, communities, and pride.

The identification and cultivation of the formal and informal elements of an organization is also important to all employees. The most effective employees in any organization learn quickly how an organization actually works instead of relying exclusively on the formal mechanisms that indicate how the organization is supposed to work.

The balance between the formal and informal elements of an organization evolves over the life cycle of the organization. As a young organization grows, the formal building blocks that bring it precision and permanence will gain in importance. However, the leadership has to be careful not to alienate powerful informal elements of the organization that can reject new formal initiatives in which they do not buy in. Imbalances resulting from a lack of integration of the two types of elements tend to appear either during periods of significant growth or significant declines in growth.

Katzenbach and Khan convincingly demonstrate that the mobilization of the informal elements of an organization is of particular importance to strategic planning, innovation, cost-cutting, culture change, or customer service. Whoever has worked in a turnaround environment will feel at home while reading the authors' coverage of mutating companies such as Bell Canada, Aetna, or The Home Depot.

In summary, Katzenbach and Khan invite leaders to mobilize the informal to solve performance challenges. Relying exclusively on the formal elements of an organization to achieve the desired performance will often lead to disappointing results.
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