The Management Myth

Most of management theory is inane, writes our correspondent, the founder of a consulting firm. If you want to succeed in business, don’t get an M.B.A. Study philosophy instead
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In the management literature these days, Taylorism is presented, if at all, as a chapter of ancient history, a weird episode about an odd man with a stopwatch who appeared on the scene sometime after Columbus discovered the New World. Over the past century Taylor’s successors have developed a powerful battery of statistical methods and analytical approaches to business problems. And yet the world of management remains deeply Taylorist in its foundations.

At its best, management theory is part of the democratic promise of America. It aims to replace the despotism of the old bosses with the rule of scientific law. It offers economic power to all who have the talent and energy to attain it. The managerial revolution must be counted as part of the great widening of economic opportunity that has contributed so much to our prosperity. But, insofar as it pretends to a kind of esoteric certitude to which it is not entitled, management theory betrays the ideals on which it was founded.

That Taylorism and its modern variants are often just a way of putting labor in its place need hardly be stated: from the Hungarians’ point of view, the pig iron experiment was an infuriatingly obtuse way of demanding more work for less pay. That management theory represents a covert assault on capital, however, is equally true. (The Soviet five-year planning process took its inspiration directly from one of Taylor’s more ardent followers, the engineer H. L. Gantt.) Much of management theory today is in fact the consecration of class interest—not of the capitalist class, nor of labor, but of a new social group: the management class.

I can confirm on the basis of personal experience that management consulting continues to worship at the shrine of numerology where Taylor made his first offering of blobs of fudge. In many of my own projects, I found myself compelled to pacify recalcitrant data with entirely confected numbers. But I cede the place of honor to a certain colleague, a gruff and street-smart Belgian whose hobby was to amass hunting trophies. The huntsman achieved some celebrity for having invented a new mathematical technique dubbed “the Two-Handed Regression.” When the data on the correlation between two variables revealed only a shapeless cloud—even though we knew damn well there had to be a correlation—he would simply place a pair of meaty hands on the offending bits of the cloud and reveal the straight line hiding from conventional mathematics.

The thing that makes modern management theory so painful to read isn’t usually the dearth of reliable empirical data. It’s that maddening papal infallibility. Oh sure, there are a few pearls of insight, and one or two stories about hero-CEOs that can hook you like bad popcorn. But the rest is just inane. Those who looked for the true meaning of “business process re-engineering,” the most overtly Taylorist of recent management fads, were ultimately rewarded with such gems of vacuity as “BPR is taking a blank sheet of paper to your business!” and “BPR means re-thinking everything, everything!”

Each new fad calls attention to one virtue or another—first it’s efficiency, then quality, next it’s customer satisfaction, then supplier satisfaction, then self-satisfaction, and finally, at some point, it’s efficiency all over again. If it’s reminiscent of the kind of toothless wisdom offered in self-help literature, that’s because management theory is mostly a subgenre of self-help. Which isn’t to say it’s completely useless. But just as most people are able to lead fulfilling lives without consulting Deepak Chopra, most managers can probably spare themselves an education in management theory.

The world of management theorists remains exempt from accountability. In my experience, for what it’s worth, consultants monitored the progress of former clients about as diligently as they checked up on ex-spouses (of which there were many). Unless there was some hope of renewing the relationship (or dating a sister company), it was Hasta la vista, baby. And why should they have cared? Consultants’ recommendations have the same semantic properties as campaign promises: it’s almost freakish if they are remembered in the following year.

In one episode, when I got involved in winding up the failed subsidiary of a large European bank, I noticed on the expense ledger that a rival consulting firm had racked up $5 million in fees from the same subsidiary. “They were supposed to save the business,” said one client manager, rolling his eyes. “Actually,” he corrected himself, “they were supposed to keep the illusion going long enough for the boss to find a new job.” Was my competitor held to account for failing to turn around the business and/or violating the rock-solid ethical standards of consulting firms? On the contrary, it was ringing up even higher fees over in another wing of the same organization.

And so was I. In fact, we kind of liked failing businesses: there was usually plenty of money to be made in propping them up before they finally went under. After Enron, true enough, Arthur Andersen sank. But what happened to such stalwarts as McKinsey, which generated millions in fees from Enron and supplied it with its CEO? The Enron story wasn’t just about bad deeds or false accounts; it was about confusing sound business practices with faddish management ideas, celebrated with gusto by the leading lights of the management world all the way to the end of the party.

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