human business

unshrink (book review)

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? ~ Marianne Williamson


I cannot tell you that Unshrink is the most important book you’ll read this year. I can tell you that it’s one of the most important books I read this year. It expresses, challenges, and expands thoughts and ideas about unbinding and unleashing humans and business and allowing us to expand and grow beyond our current constraining beliefs.

We are limited. Reduced. Operating so far below our potential because of the myths that we have believed, accepted, and perpetuated. We don’t need to expand our potential, we need to shed the myths that keep us shrunken and small so we can expand into the enormous potential awaiting us. We have the tremendous opportunity (obligation?) to unshrink ourselves, others, business, and the world.

That’s the premise of Unshrink by Max McKeown and Philip Whiteley. First published in 2002, I just came across it this year and have read it twice so far. It’s no secret that I’m an enthusiastic fan of Max McKeown – his books are consistently thought provoking, accessible, practical, and enjoyable to read – and this book is no different. At only 116 pages (133 with notes), Unshrink is also a quick read – assuming you can get through it without filling the margins with notes, which I couldn’t.

Why, though? Why unshrink? At the individual level, it’s painful to see (or be) someone hobbling themselves with the shackles of misguided myths about who they are and who they should be. Us humans are so amazing yet consistently play so small. Our potential is there yet we ignore it, dispute it, deny it.

Now expand that out. Businesses, communities, and countries are made up of individuals. When individuals are constrained below their potential so are the groups they are a part of. Businesses are less competitive and less profitable. Communities are more dysfunctional, less likely to attract newcomers. Countries, fueled by the soundness of communities and commerce, are likewise as restrained, hobbled, and shrunk as the individuals.

We often confuse short term spikes in performance measures with actual sustainable results. We think in terms of all or nothing. If a little of something is good, then an extreme amount must be extremely good. Yet, life consistently shows that few things are all or nothing. There is always a tradeoff based on points of diminishing returns.

The authors focus on replacing seven common, deep-seated myths with guiding principles. The myths are so familiar and entrenched that they are generally unquestioned as common sense. Yet, they are not common sense and rarely stand up to the light of real-world outcomes. The myths may have had truth in them at one time or been useful in a limited capacity, but have become dangerous when pushed to the all or nothing extremes. Better than an unquestioned myth is an adaptable principle.

Without giving too much away, the myth of “you are what you do” becomes the principle “you are what you can become”. It sounds like such a small shift, but is key to unshrinking ourselves. The myth of “work always comes first” is replaced with the real-world observable principle “life always comes first”. Holding to the extremes of the myths shrinks us and keeps us shrunk. The principles enable us to unshrink and expand.

Common management theories are driven by the myth that “organizations are machines.” Under this myth, people become easily and equally replaceable cogs, gears, and parts. Leading with this belief means stripping out our humanness, our individual strengths and weaknesses, our passions, and all the things that make us unique in order to make us conform into parts that really are the same. This comes at tremendous cost at both the individual and organizational level.

Replacing that horrible myth with the more accurate principle that “the organization is a community”. Thinking about it as a community means understanding that our differences can be important and valuable, each person’s contributions are unique, and each member of the community is interdependent with – not separate from – every other member. False rigidity is replaced with organic fluidity. The illusion of control is replaced with the power of influence. Machines are built, but communities are fostered. Machines are static and soon outdated; communities dynamic and ever changing and evolving. Machines break down, yet communities adapt.

There is much more. The authors delve into four other myths and principles aimed at unshrinking ourselves, others, and our businesses. All are worth more time and attention that I can offer here.

This book is for those who see that we operate below our potential, who are discouraged by the artificial separation between people and business, who imagine and hope for better. The authors conclude: We have been brought up to believe that there is always a trade-off or a choice between doing that which is good and that which leads to success. Such an assumption is wrong, and this is a tremendously liberating realization.

Your thoughts?