I’m really pleased that guest author Tobe Freeman of wordupcommunications has been kind enough to contribute this article. Tobe is an ex-research biologist who has swapped the lab bench for the keyboard of a macbook pro. He works in Zurich for the Swiss Finance Institute.
For those who care or recall, Blake’s 7 is a BBC Sci-Fi from the 1970s with a cast of misfits fighting against a tyrannical regime called the Federation.
Conventional sounding stuff.
What fascinates me about Blake’s 7 is the unconventional way in which the characters work together.
Roj Blake leads an unruly but talented and specialized team. Thieves, mercenaries and an amoral computer genius called Kerr Avon, everyone is free to do as they please yet the team still manages to achieve amazing things.
Not that the Blake’s 7 management model is easy to define.
Blake: I command this ship.
Avon: Do you indeed?
Jenna: You lead. We don’t take commands.
Blake leads but doesn’t control. There is not much evidence of exploitation or micromanagement. Indeed, Blake doesn’t even inspire a great deal of confidence.
Vila: If it ever comes to a showdown, my money’s on Blake. Well, half of it – I’ll put the other half on Avon.
Despite this complex state of affairs, Blake’s 7 defines a system of leadership and management that is well adapted to the harsh realities of decision making under uncertainty.
Blake: Have you got any better ideas?
Avon: As a matter of fact, I haven’t.
Blake: Does that mean you agree?
Avon: Do I have a choice?
Avon: Then I agree.
I had to read that twice.
Towards the end of the third series the actor playing Blake, Gareth Thomas, wanted out of Blake’s 7 and the series went on for a further 15 episodes without him. Gareth Thomas agreed to appear in the final episode of the 4th series on condition that his character was killed off completely.
No further series were made.
Having looked around a bit, it seems that no one has come forward with a management theory modeled on Blake’s 7.
Indeed, a book by Chris Blenkarn called ‘Blake’s Seven: The Way Forward?’ makes fun of Blake with stories of an eponymous management consultant with an enthusiasm for half-baked leadership models.
Casting my net a little wider, I find two references that might help to understand the magic of Blake’s system of management.
The first is called The Leaders We Need: And What Makes Us Follow, by anthropologist Michael Maccoby, director of the Project on Technology, Work and Character.
Maccoby argues that the question “What makes us follow?” is at least as interesting as “What makes a leader?”
“For leaders to lead they need the ability to attract followers”, and that means engaging the social character of those around you. The social character of today is shaped by job insecurity, the facelessness of the global market place and constant technological change. We, those that survive, adapt to these conditions by learning and improving continuously and by interacting with each other as much as we can: we have learned that knowledge sharing is our only power.
The character Avon set my mind thinking about an interactive management style when he delivered the following line:
“Is it that Blake has a genius for leadership, or merely that you have a genius for being led?”
My guess is that we’ll all have to develop a genius for being led; the genius part being that we should not take commands. Society has all but dispensed with command management. And it is probably a big mistake for any of us to gamble on one single manager having all the commanding answers. But I don’t want to say too much more about that.
The second source of insight about Blake’7 management is a book called The End of Management by Kenneth Cloke (Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution) and Joan Goldsmith (specialist in leadership development and organizational change).
Cloke and Goldsmith describe how management came into its element with the rise of slavery in Babylonia, Egypt and Rome. In other words it is a bad thing that sits on the debit side of our history.
They claim traditional management is being replaced by a more democratic order in which people manage themselves. Let’s hope that Avon is not correct in his suggestion that this would require genius in everybody. But Cloke and Goldsmith at least have a nice idea.
That brings me to Blake’s 7 dirty secret. The cast enjoys the ample and unfailing services of extremely powerful computers, including a strange talking box of lights called Orac:
Orac: I must point out that this is a gross misuse and an absurd waste of my capabilities.
Avon: Put it on the main screen.
Orac: I will do it only under protest.
Avon: You can do it any way you like, just so long as you put it on the main screen.
Perhaps a little exploitation is unavoidable.