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Book Review: The Human Element

The Human Element

by David Boyle

Review by Neil Foster

The Human Element aims to challenge assumptions to improving organisations. It is not a textbook or even a handbook but reads like the product of hundreds of different and stimulating conversations. What shines out from the first page is the author’s unflinching belief in people’s capacity to improve organisations, services and experiences for people. However, to achieve this, people have to be at the heart of design and their interests must override traditional habits or justifications on the grinding grounds of ‘efficiency’.

David Boyle’s faith in humanity is unshakeable and allows him to jump from a variety of settings in a unfettered manner from Horatio Nelson’s leadership culture to school class sizes. The theme is straightforward – that human relationships are critical to any successful organisation and the challenge is to enable these to flourish.

Boyle rightly challenges assumptions. He reminds us that you cannot have innovation without error, that increasingly personality is more important than qualifications. Organisations need to build better emotional relationships with their customers and learn how to reject the rulebook and avoid becoming tangled in targets. He guards against businesses empire building and community organisations falling under the spell of grant funding and displacing networks and self-help groups.

His greatest contempt is for the McKinseyite addiction to measuring and target setting which he believes distorts human behaviour and thoroughly disempowers staff. Boyle warns against the quick fix of 21st century culture, saying ‘we are relying on systems more and more, and increasingly removing the human element that makes change possible’.

There are some under-explored issues resulting from the book’s arguments that would have been welcome. The contracting-out of public services restricts the freedom and innovation Boyle evangelises. I sense Boyle wants an empowered and enlightened public sector, rejecting the marketisation agenda and instead always engaging and seeking to act as a local change maker instead. This would be a powerful vision, but one not explicitly made.

Boyle’s arguments against empire building are powerfully put, but he doesn’t appear to accept that there are times when regulation is needed in order to  ensure the likes of Tesco don’t override local interests and ‘human scale’ competitors. The business leaders quoted in The Human Element may have a neat turn of phrase, but at times feels top-heavy for a book aiming to highlight the importance of people power and limitations of hierarchy.

The People Principle should be right for these times. Boyle asks if we are trying to ‘ride dead horses’ and will changing riders really do? The critical eye towards the services we use, shape and fund is a message that should resonate in a time of spending cuts. The nagging irony may be that at a time when we need to reform and redesign services the most, we’re also facing the greatest insecurity at work and in society as a whole. The tendency to ‘cling to nurse for fear of something worse’ could be will be a barrier to some deploying some of the ideas and vision behind The Human Element. Perhaps that is why Boyle’s focus on leadership is just so important.

A major strength of the book features a strong bibliography at the end of each chapter which enables the read to delve deeper into the areas and arguments that hook. The Human Element is a potent gateway drug into design thinking, organisational change and a better understanding what motivates (and demotivates) people. It will whet the appetite, provoke discussion and open eyes. A book to be read and shared.

  • Read our profile of the author David Boyle here

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