Assaulting the Ramparts

Illustration showing innovators going underground rather than assaulting an established fortress
Illustration by Stephen Collins

Arbuckle professor of business administration Rosabeth Moss Kanter, like her Business School colleagues, spends a lot of time teaching about how to manage and lead organizations, large and small. She also created the Advanced Leadership Initiative, which brings executives of a certain age back to campus to retool for new challenges, mostly of a public or nonprofit nature (see “Advancing Leadership,” March-April 2014, page 38). That experience appears to have radicalized her views of institutions—and her theory of how to make them more supple—as this extended metaphor, from the prologue to her new book Think Outside the Building (PublicAffairs, $28), suggests.


Don’t try to attack a “castle”—the established order, the dominant way of dealing with issues—head on. A direct attack provokes defensive actions. Fortifications get deployed. Every window shows a weapon. Iron gates drop, and drawbridges rise to make it impossible to cross the moat. Legions of protectors are mobilized. Occupants become even more defiant, not wanting to be displaced. They hunker down for a long siege, secure in the knowledge that they are superior to the peasants and barbarians outside.…They fail to see that there might be a new way of life taking place beyond their walls.

The world is littered with literal and figurative castles.…In America, castles take…modern physical form as suburban corporate headquarter campuses, heavily guarded office towers, gated communities with hidden delivery entrances, or massive government buildings with intimidating security lines. These edifices are designed to protect executives and functionaries from unwelcome intrusions—or the need to change.…

Castles are representations of institutions. Health is equated with hospitals, education with schoolhouses, news with newspapers, spirituality with the church.…Headquarters become the impersonal embodiment of the established structure (“the Pentagon says”).

Castles are pernicious because of what they leave out.…Health isn’t the hospital or even the doctor’s office. Health might be a function of nutritious food, clean air, or stress-free work. But behemoth establishments dominate health care, including rival fiefdoms such as providers and insurance companies, full of fortification and defenses, sometimes shutting out alternatives for treatment or blocking routes to wellness.…And the city isn’t only city hall….It is also the life and culture of the people as seen in pop-up stores, food trucks, events, festivals, sidewalk chalk artists, and outdoor mural painters.

…Castles are monuments to the past and to past thinking, museums of preservation. They are establishments harboring the establishment, the elites of business and society.

…The best way to attack a castle is not head on. (Unless you command a mighty army and are willing to risk mutually assured destruction.) The best way is to go around it or underneath it.


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