While in Washington D.C. last month, for the first time I visited the U.S. Library of Congress. Guided by writer and experienced LoC researcher David Schmaltz, I received a temporary library card to research early management thought.
In the glorious reading room under its amazing dome, I held two precious books. One, an (out of print) copy of Mary Parker Follett’s Creative Experience is so old it didn’t have publication date or place data printed in it. However, a little diligent searching told me the edition I held was published in 1924. The book contains ideas offered to the world of management and leadership nearly 90 years ago.
I’d like to share some of her writing with you. These are excerpts that I copied down (by hand! with a pen! on paper!) during my visit in the Library.
“...compromise sacrifices the integrity of the individual, and balance of power merely rearranges what already exists; it produces no new values.”
“It is the ethics of the sentimentalist to say that men’s [sic] interests are the same; if they were, life would stagnate.”
Follett invented several management and organizational concepts. One of my favorites is “interact and co-act.”
“Genuine power can only be grown, it will slip from every arbitrary hand that grasps it; for genuine power is not coercive control, but coactive control. Coercive power is the curse of the universe; coactive power, the enrichment and advancement of every human soul.”
And, did anyone ever say, we value “Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools” better than this?
“What we care about is productive life, and the first test of the productive power of collective life is its nourishment of the individual. The second test is whether the contributions of individuals can be fruitfully united.”
Follett stands at the roots of behavioral sciences and the study of human relations in the workplace and society. In the concluding section of Creative Experience, she discusses conflict.
“What people often mean by getting rid of conflict is getting rid of diversity, and it is of the utmost importance that these should not be considered the same. We may wish to abolish conflict but we cannot get rid of diversity. We must face life as it is and understand that diversity is its most essential feature...fear of difference is a dread of life itself.”
“It is possible to conceive conflict as not necessarily of wasteful outbreak of incompatibilities but a normal process by which socially valuable differences register themselves for the enrichment of all concerned.
“One of the greatest values of controversy is its revelatory nature. The real issues at stake come into the open and have the possibility of being reconciled. A fresh conflict between employees and employers is often not so much an upsetting of the equilibrium, really, as an opportunity for stabilizing.”
“...if we could look at social conflict as neither good nor bad, but simply a fact, we should make great strides in our thinking. On every level the movement of life is through the release of energy.”
Follett also has thoughts on the useful role of power and freedom in conflict.
“...the social process may be conceived either as opposing and a battle of desires with the victory of one over the other, or as the confronting and integrating of desires. The former means non-freedom for both sides...the latter means a freeing for both sides and increased total power or increased capacity in the world.”
“We seek a richly diversified experience where every difference strengthens and reinforces the other. Through interpenetrations of spirit and spirit, differences are conserved, accentuated and reconciled in greater life which is the issue...the activity of co-creating is the core of democracy, the essence of citizenship, the condition of world citizenship.”
She also observes our interdependence and interconnection as humans.
“...the essence of experience, the law of relation, is reciprocal freeing.”
“To free the energies of the human spirit is the high potentiality of all human association.”
Mary Parker Follett inspires me more than most authors who take organizational life as their topic. Holding her book, I felt I had something precious in my hands. Its page edges had crumbled, several pages fell loose from the binding. I had an impulse to find white archival gloves to handle it. My eyes misted as I felt regret over how her words have met widespread disregard by later influential management advisors. However, I also discovered that people whose thinking I admire (like Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Peter Drucker, Douglas MacGregor and others) were also inspired by Follett.
As a culminating wonder of my visit, as the cherry on the top of my research sundae, a reddish-brown hard bound book arrived at my reading desk. It was the Library of Congress copy of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great! I admit it gave me a tremendous thrill to discover our inclusion in such company.