As I plowed through my shelfload of bad management books, I beheld a discipline that consists mainly of unverifiable propositions and cryptic anecdotes, is rarely if ever held accountable, and produces an inordinate number of catastrophically bad writers. It was all too familiar. There are, however, at least two crucial differences between philosophers and their wayward cousins.
- The first and most important is that philosophers are much better at knowing what they don’t know.
- The second is money.
In a sense, management theory is what happens to philosophers when you pay them too much.
The word “exponential” has taken a lot of abuse from managers who use it to describe any growth that is more than sluggish. Whereas in maths an exponential graph goes swiftly from almost flat to almost vertical, this pattern is seldom traced by any market I’ve ever come across.
But now the term seems to have slipped free of its mathematical moorings altogether: living “exponentially” involves having “quality time with yourself” and “living in your own truth”.
Speaking from the vantage point of my own truth, I find some things are truer than others. Truest of all are mathematical truths, and it is therefore upsetting to see them being pilfered shamelessly by innumerate managers eager to lend an aura of fact to what is usually a glob of guff.
I describe the MBA in the book as a degree from 1908 with a 1950s strategy. Because the degree was created in 1908 and business schools have had no new degree since 1908 and the strategy was set up based on a couple of reports in the 1950s which made business schools respectable, more research, more theory more depth. All of which made them much stronger and much more respectable academically but it did not strengthen their managerial side, and to this day there is very little management in most MBA programs and what there is, is distorted.
Let me give you an example. The Harvard case study model (…)
See also Henry Mintzberg on heroic managers.
The notion that “change comes from the top,” Mintzberg declares, is a fallacy “driven by ego,” the “cult of heroic management,” and the peculiarly American overemphasis on taking action. If companies in fact depended on dramatic, top-down change, few would survive. Instead, most organizations succeed because of the small change efforts that begin at the middle or bottom of the company and are only belatedly recognized as successful by senior management.
[missing paragraph is copied below]
Mintzberg argues that the best kind of leader doesn’t try to effect much change. Rather, she functions like a queen bee, which “does nothing but make babies and exude a chemical that keeps everything together.” It is the other bees that busy themselves in going out to sense the environment, find sources of sustenance for the hive, and make the changes necessary to keep the hive alive in the face of an evolving environment. [via HBS Working Knowledge]
In his book “Managers, not MBAs” Mintzberg suggests that
business schools should produce not heroic managers but “engaging managers.” These are leaders who assist those under them, seek input from everyone when forming strategy, and reward everyone when the organization succeeds. [via]
From an interview with Mintzberg:
We’ve long been dominated by calculating managers, right back to Robert McNamara, ex-Ford president and Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam war, and his obsession with numbers. Then there was ITT and Harold Geneen with all his numbers. Now it’s in the form of shareholder value. Everybody is looking at the stock price every few hours. It is like playing tennis and watching the scoreboard instead of the ball. That is the calculating manager.
Heroic managers are ultimately not much different but they think they are artists, they think they are very creative. So they come out with these strategies like at Vivendi, AOL Time Warner, or AT&T. They come out with all these lovely looking strategies, which ultimately are not that interesting. I call them pretend artists. These are the heroic managers, engaging in the great massive mergers, with all the drama that entails.
Finally we have the style I prefer, which I call engaging. This is where managers and chief executives first go about engaging themselves. They know the industry. They know the people. They are committed to the company. They are not there for a few years just to drive up stock prices and run off with their bonuses. And by engaging themselves, they engage other people.
So how do you recognize a heroic manager?
Mintzberg says that they tend to:
- Ignore the existing business because anything established takes time to fix.
- Be dramatic, striking deals and merging like mad.
- Focus on the present, and do the dramatic deal now!
- Favour outsiders over insiders; rely on consultants as they appreciate heroic leaders.
- Use numbers to assess insiders. That way you do not have to manage performance so much as deem it.
- Promote the changing of everything all the time.
- Re-organise constantly.
- Be a risk taker.
- Get the stock price up.
- Cash in and run — heroes are in great demand.
And just to show that management gurus do not know it all, here is (in Mintzberg’s own words) the missing paragraph that I announced at the top of this post:
Enron, with its “loose-tight” management policy, is an example of an organization that has figured out how to effect change without the usual pitfalls, says Mintzberg. The Houston-based energy company manages only two corporate processes very tightly: performance evaluation and risk management. Everything else is managed loosely, and local leaders get an enormous amount of discretion in figuring out how to get things done.