Management fads and the importance of critical thinking

One of the main themes of Mats Alvesson and Hugh Willmott’s new edition of their book Making Sense of Management is that management, and the ubiquitous tools and techniques that accompany the practice are widely taken for granted as neutral, technical and helpful. In detail, and at length, they call these assumptions into question. Further, in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Management Studies, Alvesson, with his co-author André Spicer go on to accuse organisations of practising both knowledge and stupidity management. By stupidity management they mean the way that many organisations rush into adopting the latest management fad that everyone else is taking up, simply because everyone else is taking it up. They point to an absence of critical reflection and questioning in many organisations.

It is this process, endlessly rushing towards the next big idea provoked by an anxiety about keeping up with ‘the latest thinking’, or perhaps because of (self-imposed) coercion from peers or scrutinising boards and other agencies, that keeps the management shelves of bookshops filled to overflowing, and management academics and popular writers busy (and sometimes rich).

As Alvesson and Willmott argue, although mounting a critique of some of these management fads is usually relatively easy, it is nonetheless still necessary when some old trope is breathlessly recycled as being new, different and the latest thing for ensuring success. After a moment’s reflection one might occasionally ask oneself just how many more secrets for being successful, efficient, effective and profitable there can be.

Social development organisations, and the network of training and support organisations that surround and supervise them, are no exception in this respect. And this despite an interesting contradiction that social development organisations are often capable of excellent critiques of social injustice yet seem not to be able to take a commensurately self-critical attitude towards the way they manage themselves to do something about it. While their analysis of the injustices they perceive is often detailed, thorough and sometimes moving, the depth of their thinking about how they act towards what concerns them is sometimes impoverished, or at least cabinn’d, cribbed and confined by the networks in which they find themselves operating.

Take the recent fascination with what are known as Theories of Change (ToCs). The ToCs method has been developed by the Aspen Institute as a way of framing the planning and evaluation of social development projects. The process of developing a ToC, sometimes within a project, within a programme, and within a region or country sits well with many social development organisations’ emancipatory intent. Project stakeholders are usually co-opted using participative methods to develop a ‘vision’ of their ideal change state, and then are encouraged to work backwards identifying milestones towards achieving it. Change comes about, then, because of people choosing it and designing a project which builds logically towards it. The idea in evaluation is to test the durability of the logic model, which can be conceived at a variety of different ‘levels’. Different ‘levels’ of change are thought to nest neatly within each other and to be mutually contributory.

This parts-and-whole, sequential step-taking is a very good example of systems theory which is the dominant way of conceptualising many aspects of management and project management.

This method also shares much in common with strategic planning methods developed by the orthodox management theorist Russell Ackoff in the 1980s who developed the strategic planning process known as idealised design – think of the change you want to bring about, perhaps as a ‘stretch’ target or utopian ‘vision’, and work backwards from there. The idea is to develop enthusiasm and commitment amongst the participating group to bring about the desired change, with the implication that if the predicted change does not come about it could be because people didn’t desire it strongly enough, or because they weren’t sufficiently committed. Together we will a change.

The logical framework approach (LFA) and the project cycle are also based on this way of thinking. This is that social development is logical, and proceeds with an if-then causality towards an envisioned outcome. Success can be judged on how far organisations have achieved their pre-reflected goals. Logic models reward knowing and certainty rather than drawing their strength from doubt and enquiry. There is undoubtedly much to be gained from the discussion that initiates such a logical planning process as people compete and co-operate to imagine what they want to achieve and how. But as with most long term planning processes the value lies in the discussion, rather than in the plan: the plan has no way of coping seriously with the radical uncertainty of social life and stability and change, and takes no account of what people will be obliged to do to appear to be working to the plan.

Logical social development models are what the political scientist James C Scott refers to as ‘thin simplifications’. He argues that we would not have developed our highly sophisticated societies without an ability to abstract and simplify. However, and at the same time inevitably our abstractions, maps, plans and models reduce, simplify and constrain. Abstractions and thin simplifications do not just represent the world, they actively shape it and credit our foresight beyond our abilities.

Some funding agencies now insist that social development organisations use this method before they will agree funding, and a number of training and support agencies are offering courses to help come to terms with the ‘new’ method. It would be possible to make a case that training and support agencies are providing a good service for social development organisations if ToCs have become the new reality, since they are helping their clients come to terms with the latest methods of scrutiny and control. One way of understanding what they are doing, rather than just drumming up business for a new training course, is to help social development organisations better understand the ideological implications of the methods they are obliged to adopt. However, if one were looking for a modicum of contextualisation of the method, or a degree of critique, from most development or sundry organisations then one would be disappointed. This is particularly dispiriting when the ToCs method has suddenly become recommended so widely and so indiscriminately. A critical social development worker would be right to ask what the hell is going on.

For example, New Philanthropy Capital, an organisation, which describes itself as a charity and think tank designed to help charities become more effective, has produced a publication and is running a workshop to explain to social development organisations how they can come to know if they are making a difference:

Working out a theory of change can be the first step. A theory of change shows a charity’s path from needs to activities to outcomes to impact. It describes the change you want to make and the steps involved in making that change happen. 

In April, we published Theory of change: The beginning of making a difference, which introduces the concept and discusses how it can be used by charities. A good theory of change can reveal whether a charity is doing the right work to meet its goals, whether it is running activities that do not support its goals, and how to measure its impact.

Meanwhile NCVO, a training and consultancy agency which supports the not for profit sector in the UK describes Theories of Change as a way of interpreting the world as well as changing it, and draws on Marx to support their observation.

More seriously for international development organisations, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), a body set up by the government responsible for scrutinizing UK aid spend, has also taken an interest in Theories of Change. The ICAI notes in its first report that effective organizations must have a clear plan: ‘This clear plan is commonly referred to as a “theory of change”. A theory of change defines the chain of activities required to bring about a given long-term goal.’ (ICAI, 2011). Adopting a theory of change for development projects is not just a technical prerequisite, then, but any INGO interested in receiving grant money for the Department for International Development and concerned about its long term sustainability has to take this method seriously.

INTRAC, a consultancy and training organisation working with international development organisations, does recognise that there may be nothing new about ToCs. There is a degree of distance in their publication reviewing and introducing them, but they do not sustain any reservations for long. One of their associates, in a review of ToCs, concludes:

There is so much potential with Theory of Change. If developed and used effectively, it can be used:

• as a framework to check progress towards change (to complement project logic) and to stay on course

• to test the weak links in the change pathway (right people? Right strategies? right outcomes?)

• to document lessons learnt about what really changes in relation to our efforts

• to keep the process of implementation, and impact assessment transparent, so everyone knows what changing and how

• to report more effectively to funders, policymakers and boards.

Meanwhile, an independent consultant writing in the same publication carried out some research amongst users of ToCs, who argued that they thought it was mostly useful as an evaluation tool, but had found it ‘accessible, intuitive and useful’. One reason why the framework might feel ‘accessible’ and ‘intuitive’ is because it is based on exactly the same kind of thinking as the LFA and the project cycle, which have been widely used in the sector for years. By abstracting and simplifying ToCs enable administrators better to manage at a distance without becoming to involved in the messy detail. The consultant goes on:

Through comparing different views, Theory of Change unlocks positive critical thinking about the things that people care deeply about: their work; who they want to benefit; and how and why their organisation is going to set about improving a situation. This deep reflection in a Theory of Change process often brings a clarity of thinking and insight, a real boost of energy and motivation; what people call ‘aha moments’.

It is hard to stand against critical thinking, although with reservations about why this always needs to be ‘positive’. Some of this critical thinking should also extend to the framework under discussion. And given what we know about the nature of ToCs, it is hard not to be concerned that the ‘deep reflection’ is not quite deep enough. ToCs, like all other forms of thin simplification, overstate logical causality and the contribution of those who identify themselves as the agents of change. It constrains as much as it enables in terms of the reflections it encourages about complex social reality.

If we were to accept Alvesson and Willmott’s challenge we would not so readily accept ToCs, or any other tool of management, as self-evidently neutral and helpful, but we would start to notice and question who is recommending it and why. What does it make visible and what does it cover over? This is something we will explore in subsequent posts.






2 thoughts on “Management fads and the importance of critical thinking

  1. Henk Muntslag

    My compliments to you for this sharp critical note -delivered in diplomatic wording- to crucial management aspects of development practice.

    Best regards,

    Henk Muntslag


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