Is it Time to Sell My Management Books?

Reflections on workplace perspective…..

Drake Bennett (Have Success Gurus Steered Us Wrong?, National Post, Saturday, April 25, 2009) and also in has an interesting take on the value of “success books”; interesting yes, but he may be missing the point.

His bottom line conclusion, in my words: management books amount to little more than a hoax, a conspiracy of sorts that mislead CEOs and organizations who trustingly chose to adopt their doctrines.

Is it time to sell my management books?

Is it time to sell my management books?

To make his case, he cites the work of a more recent set of experts, counter-gurus if you wish, like Phil Rozenzweig (author of The Halo Effect).  They claim that the suggestions espoused in these books are essentially useless, guilty on several charges.  First, they have done a poor job of identifying successful organizations, since success may be attributable to factors outside an organization’s control such as luck; and there is a fair amount of evidence to show this is true.  Second, what these gurus claim to be research is little more than a collection of soft qualitative case studies and in many instances the accuracy of the numbers can be questioned.

How do I feel about this assessment?  A little conflicted I guess.  On the one hand, I agree with the reviewers.  These earlier management and success books are not without flaws and to some extent these challenges limit their usefulness.   On the other hand, completely discounting these reference text would be counter productive.  So I prefer asking myself what is the value of these materials and how should they be used in the workplace?  These are my observations:

  1. Organizations need some form of guidance: I just recently completed some consulting work with an organization.  There was a great deal of experience in the management group; however, there was little awareness of advances in the field of management.  They seemed satisfied to continue employing inefficient practices, because they had little knowledge of a better way and if they had some knowledge, they had little reason to believe that newer approaches to management were any better.   They were in need of someone to demonstrate that certain management principles actually worked. The “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” mentality that tarnishes a reasonable source of experience, ideas and tactics  makes it difficult for these organizations to bridge the knowledge gap.
  2. Some Disciplines Defy Rigorous Measurement: In my previous incarnation, I was blessed with the opportunity to manage highly rigorous studies using advanced measures and huge data bases.  We had solid numbers, a solid research method and our results were defensible.  For years we deferred studies that defied measurement, mostly because the measures were soft, qualitative and subjective.  It was like trying to build a high rise tower on a bed of   sand.  As researchers, we were vulnerable to attack.   In spite of their weaknesses, these studies were state of the art.  They were the best that anyone had tried; they represented innovation in the field.  Still they were impossible to defend — a nightmare for researchers.  The so-called science of management is similarly difficult to measure and although some researchers claim that they can do better — and perhaps they can do somewhat better — these new studies will also be subject to criticism.  Let’s face it.  These were pretty good studies for their time and in my view they still have a great deal to offer a judicious reviewer.
  3. Theory may have its limitations, but used correctly has great value: I love hockey; for period of time, I studied the sport of hockey very closely.  I was so passionate about the sport that I used to attend advanced hockey symposia with coach presenters from around the world — NHL and AHL coaches, European league coaches, and development league coaches.  They were all there talking about what works.  The irony was that what worked one year didn’t the next.  Last year’s hero was this year’s exile.  Nobody could predict what would work in the future and no one could explain why a certain approach had worked the year earlier.  There were just too many intangibles from talent to training methods to on ice systems to who knows what.  Coaching team sports was and always will be theory.  We will continue to attempt to make it science, and we may have  some hard data that seems to prove part of the puzzle; but in the end, my sieve will continue to be my intuition, my good judgment.   Interestingly much of my management and leadership principles are derived from coaching team sports — more on this in a later post.  Can you think of another domain which continues to be principally theory?  Remember Harry Truman wishing for a one-armed economist?  Why you ask?  He simply wanted some hard, scientific and tangible advice.  Business success and leadership also fit into this category; you must filter, examine, assess and consult to arrive at the best fit for your organization.
  4. Passion manifests itself through preparation: Years ago I attended a presentation by the CEO of a garden tools mail order company.  Most of his presentation I have forgotten; however, there is one thing he said that I found quite interesting.  This CEO had conducted a study of American businesses and from his research had concluded that there were two key determinants of business success — passion and luck.   After everyone in attendance laughed at the simplicity of his formula, we began to assess what this finding really meant.  First let’s look at luck.  I cannot predict when luck will come my way and I cannot even determine the quantity of luck that will fall in my lap.  Clearly this is beyond my humble capacity.  When it comes to luck, however, I belong to the school of luck infused by author Stephen Leacock.  “I am a great believer in luck”, said Leacock, ” and I find the harder I work the more I have of it”.   The work component described by Leacock is equated to my passion.  My passion is my drive that allows me to prepare and those business books are part of the content that feeds my passion — all in anticipation of the day when luck, however defined, comes a callin’.
  5. The formula for success involves more that just a management reference book: A quick story to make a point.  Years ago, a former NHL coach shared with me, over coffee, that he never explained his hockey system to his players; he simply taught them their role on the ice in different situations.  He had learned from the school of hard knocks that players would translate failure of the team with the weakness of the system.  He preferred that the players measure success in terms of their own level of commitment to team success.  Interpreting?  A management book does not an organization make.  The formula is much more sophisticated;  the ingredients of this recipe, if you wish, include items like leadership at all levels, teamwork and talent; all of this is overlaid with a system of guidance largely extracted from management books.  It seems a little too convenient to blame failure on the weaknesses of management information.

I think most organizations realize that neither management books, nor management gurus provide perfect information.  They are merely part of the answer that prepares us to manifest our passion; organizations can then assess the value of these tools and the extent to which they will be integrated.

And in all this, we must keep in mind that there is still no utopia; of course, I would rather be the organization that strives for self-improvement than a laissez-faire business that is mired in complacency.

What is your favourite management book?  How has it helped you or your organization?  Does your organization have a mindset of improvement?

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