Management gurus: purveyors of useful theory or sellers of 'snake-oil'?
The recent death of management guru Stephen Covey stimulated me reflect on what these individuals seek to achieve and, more especially, the value of what they provide?
To be conferred with the status of being a management guru the person must be seen to have profound impact in their role as guru (teacher); something that all academics hope to achieve.
Management gurus are believed to have particular understanding of what creates success that gives them insights beyond the majority of other thinkers.
As such, their thoughts have such great significance that they are given a status that elevates them to the role of quasi-religious leaders.
If a management guru suggests something that a manager or an organisation should do, because they are perceived to know what works, so the argument goes, you are foolish to ignore their teachings.
If you consider what gurus are paid in terms of book sales, consultancy fees and appearance fees, it is very lucrative; meaning that you earn millions.
But it begs the question of what do management gurus offer and should we listen to their advice?
Whilst management theory cannot claim to be a classical subject in the way that science and humanities can, it at least can claim to have existed since the late nineteenth century.
Since then there have been a number of broad approaches to providing theory.
Theory is an interesting word. Many believe that management theory should offer a definitive solution and should be seen as akin to science.
And this has always been the challenge for management theory; to provide its users (practitioners) and thinkers with valid explanation.
The real difficulty has been in offering 'tools and techniques' that allow those doing 'management' to be confident in the results.
We have had various phases of management thinking that, because of the particular circumstances of the period in which they emerge, have created a zeitgeist.
Accordingly, in the past century or so we have been offered a number of theories that can be classifies as follow; scientific management, bureaucracy, administrative theory, systems theory, human relations, neo-human relations, contingency, and, more latterly, quality management which has spawned a panoply of techniques (TQM, lean, business process improvement).
As anyone who has attended a 'formal' management course will attest, the multitude of models that are offered suggests a great deal of disagreement and as some might argue, confusion.
Any student of management or business will, not unreasonably, ask the question, tell me what works?
Personally speaking, as an academic in a business school who both teaches and researches management, I would answer that I don't know precisely. Like everyone else, my view is that 'doing' management depends on so many factors - most especially human one - that there can never be solutions (theories) that offer guaranteed success.
We can certainly make suggestions on the basis of what we have studied and our own preferences.
It is always useful to consider what seems to work elsewhere though it is important to stress that the factors (contingency variables) may be very different and, therefore, have a different influence.
No two organisations can ever be the same. This is the dilemma that makes management different to other disciplines. Consider how our bodies work.
A comparison I provide to students is to consider what happens when you go to see a doctor with a physiological problem (as opposed to psychiatric).
They will consider the symptoms and, on the basis of their education, training and experience, will make a diagnosis and recommend treatment.
What enables a doctor to give consistent advice is that, regardless of the complexities of learning anatomy at medical school, the human body consists of standard parts and operates in a consistent way.
Even though every organisation has standard components - people - they are like all of us; free thinking and sentient beings and have emotions, dreams, fears and, all-too-frequently, days when we simply don't feel as motivated as others.
Given the inconsistency of the human element, it is perhaps amazing that any organisation can enjoy consistent success.
Henry Ford, who was a great proponent of the principles of scientific management in his factories, believed that the objective was to remove as much of the human from the processes as possible.
Management gurus, it seems, try not to concern themselves with the vagaries of organisations. Success is possible if you listen to their formula.
Perhaps this is what has made the message offered by management gurus so seductive.
It might be argued that the most seductive of all them is Tom Peters who, it has to be acknowledged, helped to create the trend in which commentators on management became international superstars; and are paid accordingly.
In their fascinating book The Witch Doctors, What the Management Gurus are Saying, Why it Matters and How to Make Sense of it, (Heinemann, 1996), Micklethwait and Wooldridge suggest that the term 'management guru' has become synonymous with Peters.
Peters was responsible, with co-author Robert Waterman, for writing In Search of Excellence which was published by Harper Collins in 1982.
This book became legendary because it promised much; to be able to learn the eight attributes of excellence as practiced by America's 'best-run companies' and showed that a management text could be sold to readers beyond the traditional market that tended to be limited to academics, students and, perhaps, a few dedicated managers in practice.
In Search of Excellence was the first management book to sell a million copies on its first print run and has since sold many millions more.
It made the authors rich and subsequently turned Peters into a celebrity within management consultancy capable of attracting large audiences of managers and executives willing to pay dearly to hear the Peters' message.
Peters become a corporate entertainer; a sort of Frank Sinatra of the business world!
Where Peters led many other management gurus have followed with similar results.
But Peters has also become notorious for being wrong in his many books and in the advice offered in his seminars.
The fact that over two thirds of the 'best-run' companies Peters and Waterman cited in their book went bankrupt clearly showed that the eight attributes of excellence are no guarantee to success.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge, who accuse Peters of 'contradicting himself more often than the average politician', offer what might seem a hollow defence of the accusation that his 'theory' is flawed:
"...Peters writes his books for the real world, for people to use, and that the real world changes fairly quickly. Although he has not quite stooped to writing get-rich-quick books, he has always made it clear that, far from being exercises in academic analysis, his books are intended to help people prosper, or at least survive" (page 98)
And there you have it. Management gurus can write what they believe is appropriate for 'real people' in the so called 'real world'.
On the basis of this argument it seems that the expectation of veracity for management gurus is a great deal lower than that for academics.
Moreover, a strict interpretation of this view is that for those of us who do not claim to be regarded as 'gurus of management', what we offer in terms of theory is not intended for the 'real world', whatever that is.
This raise the question of why management gurus appear to be able to provide thinking that is sometime questionable?
As Micklethwait and Wooldridge acknowledge with respect to In Search of Excellence, the 'four main ingredients' that contributed to its success were uncanny timing, an 'extraordinary' ability to articulate the mood, a skill in being able to give 'practical-sounding advice and what they believe to be 'breathtaking' talent for marketing.
I would add that what Peters, in particular showed, was that if you have showmanship and incredible belief in the message, it is possible to sell ideas that don't stand up to scrutiny.
Peters and Waterman sensed that in 1982 their message needed be much more inspirational and upbeat than others had been. It is worth remembering that America was waking up to the threat from Japan.
Indeed, they had derived their 'data' from working with companies whilst at McKinsey just like two other authors, Richard Pascale and Anthony Athos who, in 1981 published The Art of Japanese Management which did not sell the in the vast quantities that Peters and Waterman's book did.
The difference between the two books was that whereas Pacale and Athos tended towards being truthful to the extent that they were accused of being pessimistic about the ability of American companies to deal with the threat from Japan, Peters and Waterman had no reticence in propagating a message that excellence was possible - provided you could inculcate the eight attributes.
One of the main criticisms of management gurus is that they provide fads that are of their time and that if nothing else, they have a good sense of what their 'consumers' want to hear.
In an article published in The Harvard Business Review in 2002, 'Spotting Management Fads', Danny Miller and Jon Hartwick suggest that managers tend to be seduced by these fads.
Moreover, they believe that because management gurus tend to present their ideas in an over-simplistic way and with a prescriptiveness that suggest guaranteed results, it is inevitable that disappointment quickly follows implementation.
Ultimately, of course, it is a case of caveat emptor. Nobody forces managers to consume the ideas offered by management consultants.
Ellen Shapiro in her article 'Managing in the Age of Gurus' (published in The Harvard Business Review in 1997), contends that managers find these fads attractive precisely because they offer 'quick fixes' and means they do not need to think for themselves.
As the seminal management thinker Peter Drucker suggests, thinking requires hard work and management 'fashions' provide a 'wonderful substitute'.
Perhaps it is useful to consider Stephen Covey's contribution as a management guru.
His book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People published in 1989 has now become the bestselling management book of all time; over 25 million copies.
What is intriguing is that his message was the importance of the individual in creating a successful organisation. As The Economist suggested, Covey was 'peddling a kind of total quality management for the character'.
Crucially, Covey very consciously avoided the belief that there are instant solutions or quick fixes and, instead stressed the importance of characteristics such as integrity, courage and patience.
For completeness, his seven habits are:
1. Be proactive
2. Begin with an open mind
3. Put first things first
4. Think win-win
5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
6. Synergise and learn to work cooperatively for the benefit of all
7. "Sharpen the saw" which requires the individual to be mentally and physically refreshed by exercise, reading, prayer and good works [Covey was a devout Mormon]
Covey subsequently added an eighth habit which was the need to find your voice so as to inspire others.
In order for someone to become more effective, Covey suggested that it is necessary to divide their regular tasks into four categories: urgent and important; non-urgent and unimportant; urgent and unimportant; non-urgent and important.
Many might argue that what Covey offered was simply common-sense.
But common-sense clearly sells; especially when delivered by someone as passionate about his message as Covey.
The influential psychologist Kurt Lewin was reputed to state that there is nothing so practical as a good theory. Put another way, if a theory works in practice then it works full stop!
If what any management thinker (guru or otherwise) is popular amongst the business community it would be churlish for me to criticise.
The reality of managing and being in business is that it is complex at the best of times. If offering simplistic solutions helps to stimulate deeper and more reflective thought processes then that is good.
Spending money on the latest management guru's book is hardly going to make a great deal of difference. Even spending a thousand pounds to attend seminar to hear their ideas might provide 'food for thought'.
However, trying to implement whatever ludicrous idea that is currently being offered may lead to unintended consequences and do more harm than good.
Management gurus have 'form' and have been accused of being similar to the infamous snake-oil salesman of the wild-west. Perhaps their ideas should have an 'organisational health' warning.
It is worth remembering the maxim of the need to look before you 'leap' into implementation.