Browsing through a digest of management and leadership articles on an aggregating website, it wasn’t hard to pick up the overall tenor of most of what was offered. ‘Three top tips to achieve organisational effectiveness’; ‘five ways to hire smart people’; ‘the seven “musts” of effective strategic planning’. Alongside these, my own articles must have seemed an anaemic contribution. No grids, no frameworks, not top tips.
As a social object, articles about management fit into a long and distinguished tradition of offering precepts about how to live your life modelled first by the great religions. There are ten commandments in Christianity, five pillars of Islam and the eight-fold path of Buddhism. Why not, then, have five things to bear in mind when doing strategic planning? It’s easy to remember and perhaps gives a defence against anxiety if one could at least bear certain things in mind when undertaking some complicated management initiative.
Secondly, the idea of offering three, five or seven (does it always need to be an odd number?) tips for achieving something is consonant with the common humanistic idea that nature operates by simple rules underlying the complexity of what we experience. The idea carried over directly into theories of management is that if we could identify these simple rules we could cut through the complexity of what we are dealing with. The idea is a comforting one that this daunting process that we are engaged in is actually rather simple if we could just identifya few rules to cut through the mess, so that we could be at one with the mysterious forces that shape the universe. This aspiration for a kind of mystical ‘deep synergy’ is evident in a number of prominent writers, not least Meg Wheately and Peter Senge.
Thirdly, we are pattern-forming animals who make sense of the fantastic amount of data that we have to screen each day by reducing and simplifying, or, as I demonstrated in a previous post, by ignoring certain events in fast changing and dynamic situations. Mostly we are not even aware of what we are screening out, so caught up are we in the hurly burly of what we are doing. This perspective would certainly destabilise the idea that we are making rational and conscious choices about how we choose to shape the world.
So, what are the problems with top tips, grids and framworks of advice? A number of difficulties arise from the fact that advice is often very generalised, so generalised in fact that it would be difficult to know what to do about it. Is it really any help to be offered advice which counsels you only to choose business proposals which are likely to succeed, or only to hire staff who are likely to fit in, or only to choose initiatives which will have a transformative impact on the business? How will you know in advance? Promises of transformation often get bogged down in the politics of everyday life.
In adddition, advice is usually offered on the basis that it is only the manager who is acting. The ‘must-do’s’ can offer no insight into how other people might respond to what the manager is trying to do. In this sense they are not even half of what we might need to know in any situation, unless we are intending to manage according to our precepts irrespective of how people respond to us. And of course, how people take up our suggestions is unknowable in advance of our offering them. Management takes place in specific contexts with specific people with particular things going on and a history of relating that informs action and reaction. Generalised rules and advice can have nothing to say about these. You might make the case that the specificity of the particular situation, with all the constraints on action that these imply, are actually the hardest part about managing.
If managers find articles offering top tips helpful, then it would be hard to argue against them. However, if the articles are taken up as a substitute for thinking, and/or an escape from paying attention to the day to day interactions that inform our judgement about what is required and when, then actually they become a distraction from what managers could be doing to manage well.