20 August 2009 • 7:00 am

Saul Alinsky’s Rules for (Consultants)

Saul_AlinskyOne of the most memorable books I was required to read in graduate school was Saul Alinky’s Rules for Radicals. The class, as I recall, was called “Power and Politics in Organizations,” and Alinsky’s slim yet compelling text stood out among the three or four books my classmates and I had to complete during the ten weeks of that valuable class.

Saul Alinsky was born and raised in Chicago, where he became known for his organizing of meatpackers and later, civil rights groups. He is generally regarded as the originator of the term “community organizer” which was front and center in the rhetoric of last year’s U.S. presidential campaign – Alinsky’s teachings and writings influenced Barack Obama’s community organizing work in Chicago. Alinsky has always been a polarizing figure, even 37 years after his death in 1972. In the opening lines of Rules for Radicals, Alinsky wrote,

“What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”

Alinsky wasn’t subtle, nor was he deferential. In plain language, he expressed his passion for change, and generations have learned from his wisdom.

No matter where you find yourself on the political spectrum today, the fact that you’re reading the Tenacious Blog means that you’re interested in effecting change in organizations, and much of Alinsky’s writing is as relevant today as it was during his lifetime. Organizational change doesn’t (usually) result from the kind of radical actions that Alinsky advocated, but change agents up against overwhelming resistance to change will benefit from his radical thinking.

In the course of my career, it has been my privilege to be a mentor to a number of younger management consultants. Most of them saw consulting as a simply a stepping stone to their next career opportunity, but a few of them were so engaged with the idea of management consulting as a profession that they couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It was to those few that I gave the gift of Rules for Radicals. My advice was to read the book with an open mind, and whenever appropriate, to substitute the word “consultant” for the word “organizer,” as well as some other substitutions. For example, in the chapter on Communication, Alinsky writes,

One can lack any of the qualities of an organizer (a consultant) – with one exception – and still be effective and successful. That exception is the art of communication. It does not matter what you know about anything if you cannot communicate to your people (your clients). In that event, you are not even a failure. You’re just not there.

Communication with others takes place when they understand what you’re trying to get across to them. If they don’t understand, then you are not communicating regardless of words, pictures, or anything else. People only understand things in terms of their experience, which means that you must get within their experience. Further, communication is a two-way processes. If you try to get your ideas across to others without paying attention to what they have to say to you, you can forget about the whole thing. (emphasis added)

Pretty radical stuff, right? If you’re serious about driving change in your organization, I guarantee that you’ll find wisdom, insight, and inspiration in this classic. I wish I could simply give (each of you) a copy of your own, but of course, I can’t. Eleven bucks at, or likely for even less (used) at your local college bookstore. Let me know what you think.

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