Up the Organization: How a Technology Skeptic Paved the Way for 21st-Century Business

Photo of author

By admin

Robert Townsend was a business visionary who didn’t see much of a future for computers. That wasn’t entirely surprising, given that the computers of his time took up whole rooms and needed massive amounts of energy to power their vacuum-tube, magnetic-tape technologies.

In the age of UNIVAC, no computer was going to write your term paper, or understand your spoken word. If it attempted language translation, it might sound like an American tourist ordering a baguette at a Paris boulangerie. Its clattering punch-card terminals, whirling reels and blinking consoles distracted from the fact that its abilities were limited, in many ways.

So when Robert Townsend published Up the Organization in 1970, he dismissively devoted a chapter in his business bestseller to “Computers and Their Priests.”

Although he missed the mark on our digital future, he was a groundbreaker when it came to the ways companies manage workers in North America, and how workers relate to companies. He didn’t predict Zoom conferences, CRM systems or online advertising, but he saw that the big legacy companies were in decline, mostly because their traditions had become outmoded and inflexible.

His was a different kind of business book, the kind you would expect from the man who saved the Avis rental car company with bold, out-of-the-box thinking. Copywriters still study the marketing campaign he devised to reinvent the brand, which featured the tagline: “We try harder.” The idea was so compelling that millions of buttons imprinted with the whimsical slogan were created.

By proudly positioning itself as the second-banana in car rental, Avis (and Townsend) recaptured the same creative lightning-in-a-bottle irony that made the classic VW “lemon” ad campaign of the early 60s so memorable.

Standing apart from the dense, windy business books of the day, Up the Organization taught simple lessons concisely and convincingly. It became a popular guide for generations of future business professionals, such as global e-commerce entrepreneur Richard Burry.

Richard Burry, who manages worldwide operations from a seaside village in Portugal, is a man immersed in tech. His tools of the trade are advanced technologies, and the companies he launches and invests in are cutting-edge. But when it’s practical, he turns to the wisdom and simple solutions of the past.

One example is the way he plans his day, using a pen and pad of paper to create lists, checking off boxes as he completes necessary tasks. He makes lists on envelopes, matchbooks, napkins — whatever is within reach. He’s ready when those fleeting “aha” moments occur throughout the day.

“I don’t wait for my mobile to power up,” he says. “Some of the greatest ideas in the history of the world have been scribbled on scraps of paper or parchment.”

Burry is a student of Townsend’s common-sense principles of business. Among his favorite quotes from Up the Organization are these:

“Most people in big companies today are administered, not led. They are treated as personnel, not people.”

“True leadership must be for the benefit of the followers, not the enhancement of the leaders. In combat, officers eat last.”

“Anyone that makes over $150 a week should be allowed to set his own office hours.” (in 1970 dollars, of course.)

“The controller’s job is to see that all future surprises are pleasant.”

“I used to keep a sign opposite my desk where I couldn’t miss it. … Is what I’m doing or about to do getting us closer to our objectives?”

“Policy manuals. If they’re general, they’re useless. If they’re specific, they’re how-to manuals — expensive to prepare and revise. If you have to have a policy manual, publish the Ten Commandments.”

Robert Townsend’s subtitle for his book provides a valuable insight into his perspective on 70s-era business. It promises: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits.

At the time, the notion that businesses were stifling people was vaguely heretical. After all, this was just a few years after the now-classic television series The Fugitive was almost uniformly rejected by TV executives who didn’t want to advance the premise that the American justice system might ever make a mistake.

Townsend was a revolutionary, but only in the Jeffersonian sense. He advocated for freedom and autonomy. He believed the pursuit of profit could be aligned with the pursuit of happiness.

These ideas seem unoriginal today simply because they have become truisms, foundational standards and philosophies. Robert Townsend didn’t see the future of the modern economy and workplace; he merely created it.