Rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water, it is possible to keep an idea without rigidly adhering to the metaphor that makes it intelligible. By David James and Leon Gettler
Wild ideas are a common feature in management thinking. Sometimes they are truly outlandish, such as the use of dolphins as a management tool. Sometimes they are more mundane, such as the metaphors of the sporting field that are used to inspire workers to improve their productivity. Such ideas should not be dismissed out of hand; they can offer useful insights and provide managers with novel ways of motivating staff. But they rarely survive too much close scrutiny. MT examines some of the more common left-field approaches to management.
As a metaphor for management, musical enterprises seem to offer a fruitful source of insight. Management guru Peter Drucker, for example, saw in music a balance between enter-prises’ collective aspirations and individual expression: “Only the score tells the players what to do; playing a joint score makes music. For both soloist and conductor, getting music from an orchestra means not only knowing the score, but learning to manage knowledge.”
How useful is this simile? Musical groups do require managing, and to the extent that there are different styles, it is stimulating to consider how effectiveness is achieved. Classical music requires a command and control style of management (by the conductor) to eliminate mistakes. Such a regulated activity tends to produce charismatic leaders, almost as if its mechanistic tendencies must be counter-balanced by vibrant leadership. Jazz, in which the emphasis is on improvisation, tends to produce more participative leadership, perhaps because it is not possible to direct the musicians. Miles Davis, the best-ever leader in jazz, would say: “I don’t know what I want you to play, but I know what it is when I hear it.” Davis also followed a distinctive way of putting together teams. He would simply ask the musicians with whom they wanted to play.
But the musical analogy has limits. Musicians are required to spend years training to master their instruments; few areas of the workplace make similar demands. Creating a sense of purpose is rarely an over-riding problem in musical endeavors, whereas it can be a severe problem in many areas of work.
The great strategists of war are regular fare in management teaching: Sun Tzu, Carl von Clausewitz, Napoleon, even Alexander the Great. Although such grand comparisons appeal, especially to male executives, they probably reveal more about the illusions of management than its successful prosecution.
Certainly, some imaginative leaps are required. What, for example, is the business equivalent of the admonition “A walled fortification situated in the midst of a low-lying swamp which, even without high mountains or deep valleys around it, is still surrounded on all sides by crouching hills, is a male fortification, and cannot be attacked”?
Senior executives may like to see themselves as Napoleon or Frederick the Great, scything their way through battles in an effort to fight wars on behalf of shareholders. But management is typically more mundane and less confrontational than war.
Examining military thinkers can be invaluable for framing a strategy, because military strategists are usually the best available. The frameworks they offer are usually invaluable ways of assimilating confusing and ambiguous information.
But, ask a few basic questions. Who is the enemy? The customer (never)? Competitors (sometimes)? Stakeholders (never)? How do we know the enemy is “beaten”, when business activities have no particular finish – unlike wars, which end when the opposition is dead or has surrendered.
Sport is a common management analogy, not least because of the popularity of sporting figures as sources of inspiration. The champion swimmer Kieran Perkins, for example, became one of the most popular speakers on the business circuit after his inspiring win in the Atlanta Olympics. The appeal is probably more sentimental than real. Sport is a far more defined activity than most work.
What, for example, is a “goal” in service work? Most tasks are more about ensuring that routines are reliably performed. There is also a fundamental difference that greatly under-mines sporting analogies. Most sport has its origins in leisure activities; they are meant to be fun. Few would say the same of work activities. It is a measure of the enervation of post-industrial society that such leisure activities have been turned into businesses and the athletes into professionals. But they still retain a fundamentally different logic. Scoring a goal in football, or winning a swimming contest or playing a fine shot in tennis is, finally, pleasurable in a way that few working activities are.
Australian theorist Fred Emery has described management as “socio-technical systems”; physical systems of production and human social organisms. This is an essentially impossible synthesis; something like the mind-body problem in philosophy.
Consider “knowledge management”. It is common to hear knowledge described as a “resource”. Yet knowledge is in no sense a resource; it is a human activity.
What is happening here? The language of science is being adopted inappropriately. In science, the world of things is analysed in order to define underlying causes. It is common for management to be analysed in the same way. People are treated as things, and causes for their activity are proposed. This is an approach so widespread it is barely noticed how often it results in nonsense.
The problem with such an approach is that organisations stand or fall on the collective and individual will of the people in them. Science has no place for that, as 19th-century philosopher John Newman commented in his book The Nature and Scope of University Education: “After speaking with the highest admiration of the human intellect [the false scientist] limits its independent action to the region of speculation, and denies that it can be a motive principle, or can exercise a special interference in the material world. He ascribes every work, or external act of man, to the innate force or soul of the physical universe.”
This tendency plagues management thinking. It is perhaps an understandable response to the mysterious nature of human will, individual and collective. Human behavior has much that is not understood; good managers do not necessarily understand the causes, they simply know what they need to know. But scientific metaphors should be treated as being every bit as speculative as the more obviously outlandish analogies.
Organisations do not “learn”, people do. There may be some areas of “implicit knowledge” in an organisation that are collectively apprehended and that transcend any individual’s learning.
But the “learning organisation” is a metaphor. Peter Senge, management academic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was responsible for it: “The learning cycle is one in which you do something, then you observe, reflect on the con-sequences and, from that comes new discoveries which lead on to new possibilities for action.”
The problem is that Senge then tried to reduce this to a physical process. Emery described the problem: “Instead of systems theory involving a ‘synthesis of differing but coexisting facts’, it was replaced by an engineering notion. Computer power could now be used to analyse and reduce a complexity of facts to a common denominator (for example, dollars). A system was something to be imposed on facts and people.”
In other words, another metaphor used for papering over the difficulties of understanding the interaction between people and the systems in which they operate. Often more can be learned from looking at the language used in management theory than from the theories themselves.
When organisations are in trouble, they turn to the magic of an individual leader. For directors under financial distress, bringing in the celebrity CEO gets analysts and the media off their backs.
Better still if the leader has charisma; a term derived from “charism” meaning “a gift or power conferred by the Holy Spirit”. This has been the formula for creating those multimillion- dollar pay packets that seem so out of sync with the actual state of a company. The result: the share price soars, adding billions to the company’s value. But then the magic wears off: the CEO turns out to be mortal, the problems are still there, the share price tumbles and the board terminates. A Booz Allen Hamilton study of 2500 of the world’s largest companies that was released last year found that the turnover of CEOs had risen 53% in just six years, and the number being axed for poor financial performance soared 130%.
This boils down to a kind of shamanism. Rakesh Khurana, an assistant professor of organisational behavior at Harvard Business School and the author of Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs, says the process is similar to what primitive tribes do: “We watch what the medicine man says, and we don’t have to question what he does. So, when things go bad, what do they do? Kill the medicine man.” Khurana argues that the rise of charisma is a trend that began with Lee Iacocca at Chrysler in 1979. And the evidence shows that 30-45% of a company’s performance depends on the industry and 10-20% on year-to-year economic changes.
Numbers are important for managers but often in primitive ways. Figures are supposed to add credibility and gravitas. What we get instead borders on numerology. Consider, for example, the budget process. Managers work assiduously on a budget and send it upstairs for approval. The document is then sent back with the instruction to do 10% better. As a result, the processes are reframed on the assumption that the 10% improvement can be achieved, regardless of whether it is realistic. Twelve months later, the company falls short of its budget target.
The runaway success of business publishing also owes its success to management by numbers. Examples include: The Seven Secrets of Successful Coaches; The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership; The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork: Embrace Them and Empower Your Team; The Leader within You: Master 9 Powers To Be the Leader You Always Wanted To Be!; 1001 Ways To Energise Your Employees. Then there’s Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, one of the best-selling business books of all time. This is not to say that these books are wrong; much of their material is common sense. The question is whether we now have managers with better skills. Numbers come easy – not like management.
Every manager is a political operator because every organisation is a village and politics is a fact of life in any village. It’s the way things get done. This explains why change-management programs have such a notoriously high failure rate.
A study of 300 medium and large companies by the global consultancy AT Kearney found that fewer than 20% were successful. Change implementation programs often come unstuck when they threaten time-honored arrangements. They create turf wars and divide organisations into camps: those for, those against, and those pleading neutrality. But change continues to roll through organisations, which is why a recent study of executives by the British management school Roffey Park found that politics was on the rise. About half (49%) said political behavior had increased in the past three years. Managers attributed this to the pace of change and shrinking opportunities.
For many executives, village politics is about networking to build a power base, scapegoating to avoid personal blame, taking credit for other people’s successes and burying bad news. Of course, managers do not see themselves as political, because their main focus is on process-driven tasks: organising, monitoring, staffing, and identifying and dealing with problems.
But they could do worse than remember the observations of Machiavelli: “The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old order, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new.”
The rise of modern capitalism has been closely linked with religion. In his seminal text The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, influential German sociologist Max Weber noted that “attainment of [wealth] as a fruit of labor in a calling was a sign of God’s blessing”. Weber argued that Benjamin Franklin’s edict that time is money was not merely giving rules but stating a moral code. It is not surprising, therefore, that the commercial world calls on spiritual values from time to time.
As John D. Rockefeller, the founder of the giant Standard Oil Trust, said: “God gave me my money.”
At the same time, however, spiritual values – even if not in the form of organised religion – are closely linked to the view that business has a broader responsibility to society beyond the profit line. In his book, The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism, Robert William Fogel, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, says the prosperity since World War II has created so much wealth that many Americans’ primary desires are not for material goods but for spiritual and intellectual assets. He writes: “In a world in which all but a small percentage are lacking in adequate nutrition and other necessities, self-realisation may indeed seem like a mere ornament, but not in a country where even the poor are rich by past or Third World standards.” That said, there is one big difference between religion and business. Religions are made to last.
Few businesses stand the test of time. It is all part of what economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction”. Schumpeter said: “The problem that is usually being visualised is how capitalism administers existing structures; whereas, the relevant problem is how it creates and destroys them.”
Only a handful of businesses have survived for centuries, but they could do so only by cannibalising themselves, destroying the old and embracing change before it was imposed on them.
France’s Saint Gobain, the diversified multinational group of companies, is the only company that survives from the original Dow Jones Industrial Average Stock Index published in 1896. Only 74 of those on the S&P 500 in 1957 – just under 15% – were there 40 years later.
The situation has been even more pronounced in Australia since the 1990s, with globalisation gaining momentum. Many companies have disappeared as a result of industry rationalisations. Others have just disappeared following a corporate collapse, and others slipped out of the elite because they failed to keep pace with change and because of bad luck. For managers, destruction and creativity go hand in hand.