sfwork logo

Creative Compartments

"Creative Compartments: A Design for Future Organisation",
Gerard Fairtlough - Adamantine Press (1994), 240pp, price unknown.

Review by Mark McKergow

Gerard Fairtlough is an example of a rare species - a practising manager and leader with experience in distinctly different organisations (giant Shell and biotechnology start-up Celltech) who can write well and has something to write about. In this book he puts forward a central idea for organising in the 21st century, based on his own experience, and surrounds it with references to and discussion of many aspects of theory and possibility.

Fairtlough's theme is the creative compartment - a close-knit group of up to a few hundred people working together. This number of people gives enough resources to tackle significant projects, whilst retaining face-to-face communications. Each compartment has a clear boundary, a well-understood and shared common purpose and common understanding. Members support each other and engage in open communications about personal as well as task issues.

This central idea is revealed remarkably quickly - Fairtlough directs the reader to a succinct summary of his ideas in the first paragraph of the introduction in a fine display of confidence. Whilst the ideas are not revolutionary in themselves, Fairtlough's suggestion of the compartment as the basis for organisation is well worthy of consideration.

The book falls into three parts, examining the creative compartment itself, then communications between compartments and finally ways for existing organisations to move towards compartments. The first part is the most successful, with Fairtlough developing his theme with extensive reference to his own experience. There is a degree ofsystems thinking on display, with references to the virtuous circles of openness and trust, empowerment and commitment and the desirability and difficulty of starting and maintaining them.

The author's practical experience shines through here, with a healthy dose of pragmatism alongside thoughts of a better future. His remarks on the future of hierarchy - for example "If you are at the top, don't think you can abolish the old habits of hierarchy by giving an order to that effect..." - are particularly well put. He examines the effects of power and conflict in a similarly sensible way.

The second section of the book looks at communication between compartments. Fairtlough warns of the dangers of the open "clan" degenerating into a secretive "fief". He examines the possibility of some members "boundary-spanning" and spending much of their time interacting with other compartments and reporting back. These boundary spanning workers will have excellent interpersonal skills and ability to manage their own and others mental models. The author uses the idea of mental models in the same way as Chris Argyris and Peter Senge, and there are traces of their influence throughout the book.

By comparison with the first, this section of the book is slightly less successful. Fairtlough points out the dangers and pitfalls of compartments failing to communicate, and develops a theme of cooperation in a well-judged discussion of the work of Axelrod and the Prisoners Dilemma. However, he does not maintain quite the same level of experience and pragmatism as earlier in the book, and starts to use case studies which don't have quite the same frisson of personal involvement. Following the unsurprising conclusion that inter-compartment communication is vital, not much is forthcoming regarding how to actually get compartments communicating.

The final section examines ways in which existing organisations can move towards working as creative compartments. Fairtlough recommends skill development, especially in interpersonal and communication skills, compartmentation of tasks, networking and critique -followed by change in legal status, emphasising the separation of the compartment from the parent organisation. This part of the argument took me by surprise, as it is the first time in the book that a legal boundary (as opposed to a simply organisational boundary) is mentioned, opening up new angles on Fairtlough's thesis which are not subsequently explored.

Once again, this section of the book is not in quite the same league as the excellent first section. The case studies are more anonymous, and one long section relates a fictitious example of a large retailing company which compartmentalises, although with the aid of some good fortune in terms of the people involved - a touch of "...and with one bound, our hero was free.."? However, as with the second section, Fairtlough's insights are valuable and worth reading.

As a whole, the book is very well-written and presented. There are good notes at the end of each chapter, giving sources and references, and a full index and bibliography are provided.

Overall, this is a fine and honest contribution to the literature. However, I wonder whether the same fate will befall this work as appears to have befallen previous authors who reached some similar conclusions on the importance of interpersonal skills, communication, critique and managing mental models. As a book concentrating on what to do rather than how to do it, it is possible that ultimately this work will be more of a contribution to the literature than to the practice of organising and leading. I hope that the next generation of practising managers and leaders prove me wrong.

"Creative Compartments", Long RangePlanning, 28, No 1, pp 119 - 120 (1995) (Book review)