Book review
Why I threw up in my mouth when reading Accelerate (XLR8) by John Kotter

by Markus Tacker

Book review: Why I threw up in my mouth when reading Accelerate (XLR8) by John Kotter

In Accelerate, which the publisher HBR dubbed XLR8 to make the word look, you know, more accelerated, John Kotter summarizes his body of work since 1974 and ideas from previous publications dating back to 1996’s Leading Change about organizational change. He concludes that organizations need to develop a Dual Operating System in order to sustainably adapt to chaotic markets which he has observed in the 1% of the top-performing companies under his discretion.

The Dual Operating System

In his observation, when organizations transition from the start-up phase to a bigger organization, they develop—for a short period of time—the ideal state: the strong, informal network of the early days, where everybody is involved in every activity and thus knows what is going on combined with necessary processes and hierarchies to deliver a more predictable output. The emerging hierarchy will soon take over and the network succumbs because of employees natural tendency to prefer stability over variety. This state of a juvenile organization is able to deliver innovative products as well as doing so efficiently and that is what organizations should aim for: running a network organization without hierarchies, performance management and organizational boundaries (the right side which is governed by leadership principles) alongside your traditional, hierarchy (the left side which is governed by management principles).

What follows is a rather good explanation of how to start the network by introducing and enabling a team of change agents and how to get them working towards a common vision that moves the organization forward. In his terms, The Big Opportunity describes in concrete and understandable language, and in a few paragraphs, what the organizations aims to achieve in order to make an impact in the market and sustainably move the needle:

[In contrast to a vision] a well-crafted statement of a Big Opportunity sounds less like finger pointed inward at the managerial and employee children [e.g. “you are not the most innovative”] and more like a finger pointed outward at a rainbow [e.g. “we can achieve X by doing Y”].

The Big Opportunity is the center of the networks activity and used to rally the Volunteer Army which will work outside of their usual hierarchies to develop new, innovative solutions that are fed back to the left side where they are put into operation. These changes translate into “wins” which are publicized throughout the whole organization and will increase the acceptance and the reputation of the network which will lead to more volunteers and an ever increasing rate of improvements and bigger wins for the whole organization. Thus the title: Accelerate.

Innovation for free

The Volunteer Army is not only voluntarily deciding to work as part of the network, but does so on their spare time, and this is how Kotter sells the dual operating system to CEOs: because working in the network, for The Big Opportunity and freed from the constraints of the left side, employees will do this on top of their regular work they still need to do for the left side. So companies will get the benefits of establishing the right side for free. He strengthens this multiple times throughout the book and explains that if motivated by The Big Opportunity, employees will work 150% “in a well-functioning dual system”.

Think of the parent who has no spare time but somehow makes time, without shirking other commitments, when his or her child needs tutoring to do well in school. Or the man who is “exhausted” at the end of a workday yet is building a twenty-five-foot boat in his backyard with energy that comes from … where?

I threw up in my mouth, when reading this. These claims are outlandish for many reasons. First, the parent example is not sustainable long term, and they are putting extra effort in for their family not a company. The second example works only because what is getting worn out during work in today's businesses are cognitive resources. Coming home from a computerized workplace working on spreadsheets does not affect your ability to creatively wield a hammer and a saw.

This also favors employees that can afford to work overtime, usually single, young workers. But employees that work part-time or have important liabilities outside of the companies will have a hard time finding extra time to work in the network. This is important to understand, because if your network is mostly consisting of a uniform selection of the organization's members, the creativity and innovativity of its ideas will suffer. A focus on diversity is a must to effectively deal with worldwide and chaotic markets.

This is insanity.

But what is even worse is his idea that the network part is entirely dependent on the benevolence of the left side, because it has no budget on its own, and network members still need to fulfill their left-side duties and are subject to left-side performance management processes.

Q: How do I keep enthusiastic volunteers from shirking their regular jobs?
A: A well-run hierarchy does not allow this. The whole system of bosses, measurements, performance appraisals, and accountability catches and corrects shirking.

Asking your employees to think different for a better goal and simultaneously forcing them to follow the old, left-side methods, which the right-side is trying to get rid of, is nothing but insanity.

Just barely touching the details

Throughout the book he gives many vague and one named example of an implementation of this system which don’t go into much detail. Although the book closes with a Q&A section, the answers there are only repeating what has been written in the few chapters before and can be downright insulting to the reader:

Q: What is the single biggest challenge creating a dual system?
A: Getting started, and in the right way. And the right way is what I have outlined in the previous two chapters.

I doubt that the Dual Operating System is sustainable. Kotter never gives the impression that at some point the left-side should lose its dominance over the right side. But this is an inevitable development because otherwise the network will stay in the chokehold of the hierarchy, and this is what he so clearly describes earlier in the book:

Since the hierarchy side of the organizations tends to control resources […] it begins to quietly, yet systematically kill off the network side of an organization.

I can only recommend this book for Kotter’s explanations on how to start and structure an initiative that kick-starts a network organization. But the execution he describes is dangerous in its shortsightedness and contradiction.