Practitioner’s Reviews

Reviews of Expanding “We Spaces,” Narrowing the Management Paradox by Charles (Kalev) Ehin, Ph.D. by Prominent Industry Practitioners

Review by Dr. Lilya Wagner

Having read this book at the height of the Covid19 pandemic, I couldn’t help but think how appropriate it is for that period of time.  With its astute and insightful approach to aspects of human nature and analysis of traditional management theory coupled with an explanation of nontraditional approaches, this book should serve as a way to not only understand some of what is being called the “new normal” but also shape the management world that is to come, given the pressures and circumstances of the pandemic, with its emphasis on “we’re in this together.”

First is the best concise description of the management paradox which inevitably exists in current management practices.  Following that is an astute and insightful analysis of human nature and its relationship to management as it is commonly implemented.  This appears to be a rare departure from traditional practices in acknowledging just how much the various aspects of human nature relate to organizational hierarchy versus self-motivation and self-determination.  Ehin skillfully acknowledges both the positive and less desirable traits of human nature in the management context as he leads up to examining and explaining the “We Space” theory itself.

Instead of just presenting the theory and urging its adoption in management, Ehin presents what might be hindrances to its actual adoption and practice, then proceeds to provide guidelines on how the theory, which he concisely explained, could be practical and implemented.

Ehin’s brief discussion of “catalytic leadership” concurs well with recognized authorities in the world of 21st century leadership, looking at collaboration, cooperation, coaching, and other traits espoused by leading thinkers of today’s leadership theories such as Chrislip and Larson.

Ehin concludes with some encouragement on how adopting and implementing “We Space” concepts can, over time, vastly improve the management scene and realities.  As he states, “We Space is an area where ‘supportive’ relationships evolve between both employees and managers in the pursuit of organizational progress.”

Reviewed by Dr. Lilya Wagner, author, consultant and trainer in nonprofit management and fundraising.

Review by David Meggitt

Professor Charles Ehin’s new book, “Expanding We Spaces Narrowing the Management Paradox,” requires a triple A rating for attention, featuring Autonomy, Agility, Action.

Indeed, Dr. Ehin is no stranger to the tortuous evolution of theories surrounding business administration management and leadership. A former early colleague of Herzberg, he is well versed in the variety of  management schools that have enticed both scholars and practitioners alike. However, notwithstanding whether the flavour of the day was cybernetics or complexity theory, his focus when dealing with organisational development has always been on the engagement of people with their organisations, and their innate desire to self-manage, to regain autonomy or agency to contribute. Following 20 years as an officer with the US Air Force, retiring as a Lieut. Colonel, he served as an organizational development manager with a leading US systems corporation, residing ultimately at Westminster College in Salt Lake City where he is Professor and Dean Emeritus at the Gore School of Business.

It is, therefore, more than opportune that his fourth book on management can guide us, without explicitly doing so, into the “New Normal” that is emerging in the way knowledge based organizations or departments are having to reconfigure. The coffee machine and water cooler in the office, where ideas are informally shared, are being replaced in the current and likely post pandemic interludes by digital links to dispersed homes wherein workers are partially or wholly located. Supervision and auditing of formal processes are also requiring an overhaul in order to replace traditional approaches, and quickly. 

Underlying all this is the pervasive and widespread challenge to increase so-called employee engagement coupled with the findings in the United Kingdom that most management schools have failed to address this challenge in an effective way.

Accordingly any approach that can help double staff engagement from 30% to 60% over a five-year period is to be welcomed and Ehin’s past 15 years’ continuing research on We Spaces will provide a valuable guide to achieving this. His book focuses primarily on the what? and the why?  He does hint, though, at the art of the possible through the two examples provided at the end of the book which are his favourites. These are W L Gore and Associates which helped found a Business School with Ehin himself as the first Dean, and Morning Star, a leading processor of tomatoes, whose  organizational structure they termed “Mission Focused Self-Management.”

With just a little reflection one can see that in most ways of organising there is invariably an inherent conflict between those who manage and those who are managed. The overarching emphasis is traditionally on control with not even a hint about employees’ self-organization. Yet, people are extremely averse to being controlled by others. Without fully understanding this seeming contradiction, fully motivated behaviour is seldom achievable. 

And as the book starkly uncovers, this situation has only emerged over the past 0.00004% of humankind existence, the period of transition from egalitarian hunter-gatherers to the modern day digital-gatherers. Using his study of the most up-to-date findings in neuroscience and evolutionary biology, interwoven with conventional management thinking, the author describes in simple steps and stripped of a huge amount of detail, the derivation of his We Space Theory to remedy this contradiction. 

Yet, as he has written, there is nothing magical about We Space Theory. It’s all about harnessing the positive hidden dynamics of what makes us human in the pursuit of common goals. His objective in developing We Space Theory was twofold: first, to demonstrate that one does not have to be a neuroscientist or evolutionary biologist to adequately understand some of the pertinent findings in those and related disciplines. For instance, his Ph.D. was not in neuroscience but in business administration. Second, to offer a practical framework for taking the pertinent knowledge from these fields and applying it to the fundamentals of management. More specifically, providing a practical way to narrow the invisible gap between the formal (primarily the realm of the conscious mind) and the informal (primarily the realm of the subconscious mind) social dynamics within organizations. In other words, to narrow  the  management paradox. Without fully understanding this seeming contradiction, fully motivated behaviour is seldom achievable. 

As a precursor to delving into We Space theory, the chapter on human nature and identity helps us grasp the basics of what makes us human and, as I see it, the simple adjustment we need to make to navigate successfully in the New Normal, to grant autonomy to our colleagues so that they can contribute, and to recognise that this underpins organizational agility.  Result: increased performance and reduced transaction costs. I like the phrase “Catalytic Leadership” which Ehin coins for enabling this through value added knowledge facilitation. To be adopted by anyone in their respective We Spaces, it means taking time to strengthen supporting relationships via collaboration not coercion, sharing knowledge and offering appropriate coaching.

Organization leaders could well note that We Spaces not only benefit their members, but the whole enterprise. The resultant scaling up creates at a given moment what the author calls an Organization Sweet Spot, where collaboration predominates, and which he considers essential for sustaining an enterprise. 

Apart from the two examples previously mentioned, the author hints at what action we can take to realise effective We Spaces. The book describes the theory in plain vanilla in the sense that it can be used in conjunction with many images of an organisation. Nevertheless a reference to the Value Exchange System by Meggitt and Sarri, and it’s way of representing nodules, the groups within which We Spaces form, is apposite, as it suggests a symbiotic organizational design and business modelling approach that can mobilize We Spaces. And for followers of the McKinsey podcasts (October 5, 2020), what more enjoyable way is available to collaborate and co-create the “backbone” they suggest for the journey to agile; to side step Covid and to meet sustainability challenges?

David Meggitt is a Chartered Civil Engineer and Alumnus of PA International Management Consultants and Planning Research Organization with consulting experience in the UK, the Middle East, North Africa and the Far East working in the public and private sectors in a variety of disciplines. In co-developing the Value Exchange System, he recognised the intrinsic value of We Space Theory in mobilizing the human assets traditionally hidden from view in business models and value networked business ecosystems.

Review by Glenda Turner

Under ordinary circumstances, people tend to do what is comfortable. That is typically whatever helps them feel in control. In good times, they may be willing to be uncomfortable and take a few risks, however, in times of extreme pressure and fear such as Covid-19 presents, the tendency toward control increases for both managers and employees. Managers often revert to “command and control.” Sadly, that is the opposite of what is needed. As managers exert more control, employees resist and pull away. This dynamic creates a Management Paradox.

In his insightful book, Expanding We Spaces Narrowing the Management Paradox, Dr. Charles Ehin explains this paradox and the implications. At the very times they most need every neuron of innovation and creativity, managers stifle them. More control diminishes the potential for conditions that are exactly the opposite of what are intended and needed. Through his deep understanding of cognitive science, Dr. Ehin shows why this paradox unfolds.

Management’s action/reaction may lead to coercion. Nothing really gets done even though people seem “busy.” We see coercion, even polarization, very prevalent and visible in our society today. While visible and explicit in society, coercion is not so visible or explicit in organizations. In an implicit response, people “pretend” to go along, and do just enough to get by, all the while pulling in the opposite direction, holding back the very creative energy and insights so badly needed at all times but especially in these times. Ehin outlines these stages from coercion to collaboration. Achieving compliance which is, ironically, the goal of command and control, will not suffice. Furthermore, not knowing the “why” in terms of cognitive science leads to finger-pointing and blame instead of responsibility and learning. Consequently, companies lose out on individual innovation and creativity. Most importantly, they never realize the synergy that comes from people self-managing and collaborating in trust and common purpose – the sweet spot Dr. Ehin describes.

If we are to believe the experts, Covid-19 is only the beginning of emergent diseases, climate catastrophes, and more “surprises” to come. Companies that will thrive are the resilient ones, the ones that prepare, adapt, and transform in this new era. These companies will be able to create the spaces where every neuron of creative energy and innovation fires–a company of relationships, of We Spaces.

Dr. Ehin talks about the importance of these relationships in creating We Spaces where people can self-manage, and feel free to express, innovate, and implement new ideas to transform the business. As a practitioner, I suggest Systems Thinking and VES (Meggitt and Sarri 2019, referenced by Ehin in We Space Fundamentals, p.19) are complementary and useful to We Space creation.

With all the information we now have, It is astounding that people tend to ignore the cognitive science that is readily available. Some may find it daunting. Dr. Ehin astutely presents it in such a way that it is understandable for even a beginner. Success in these turbulent times depends upon heeding his advice.

Submission by Glenda Turner, experienced Organizational Transformation, Value Network Analysis, and Systems Thinking Practitioner in her role involving large scale systems integration in a major global corporation.