Management Mumbo Jumbo: Lose Weight by Weighing Less

Hyper-glib purveyor of management gobbledygook Gary Hamel lifts our hopes when he quips at the Wall Street Journal blog: "I don't know if I'll write another book." From your mouth to God's ear, Gary.

He goes on to kill the joy, however, by offering his Cliff's Notes explanation of how a business can "outrun change." It's what we've come to expect from the man who has mastered the art of stringing together breezy advice ("deconstruct your orthodoxies") and fawning pseudo-case studies. You want to outrun change in today's economy? Piece of cake. Imagine alternative futures, include more diversity in your decision-making, learn to experiment quickly.

There's plenty more advice like that, but how about we sum it up? Here's your pocket Hamel: Learn to change by, well, learning to change.

The challenge isn't, after all, that managers don't realize creative destruction demands adaptation. The challenge is that we don't bloody well know how to adapt without careening off a cliff.

And this is the problem with so many Change Gurus--they neglect the reality that an organization is by its very nature a collection of stable routines. It evolves a culture and a way of doing things by virtue of solving problems. Its culture is, as Edgar Schein writes, the residue of success. Tampering with that stuff is essential in the long run, but dangerous. For every breathless Fast Company feature about some company that successfully innovated, in fact, we would all be well-served by a few obituaries of companies that innovated and died because of it. Not changing in today's economy can kill you, but changing in the wrong direction can kill you even faster.

So every business faces this dilemma--how to maintain stable routines that are the reason for its present success, while discovering new routines that will pave the way for future success, within a culture which biases how its participants see the world. We already know we're supposed to change quickly. But how?

It's all well and good to note, as Hamel does, that Google tests 5,000 software changes a year, but what in the world does this mean for the manager of a steel mill? How is the CEO of a 40,000-person international corporation supposed to reach down through the ranks and encourage productive challenges and debate? With a freaking memo? A new vision statement? What?

These are the kinds of questions that need answering. Hamel instead walks into a roomful of fat people and tells them the solution is to lose weight. Were he a pop-diet guru, he'd be laughed off the stage. Stating the obvious without any advice on implementation, however, describes more than a few corporate managers I know. So perhaps Hamel is right where he belongs.