Modern Management, From Good to Grate

Last Updated Nov 30, 2009 11:59 AM EST

Modern management has been a child of the Enlightenment. Blame it on the apple which fell on Isaac Newton's head.

That led to him formulating the laws of physics which seemed to unwrap the mysteries of the world. Suddenly, the hunt was on for the laws of everything. Charles Darwin did it for biology. Adam Smith tried it for economics.

And from observing the power of specialisation it is a short leap to the moving production lines of Henry Ford and the idea of Scientific Management, written by Frederick Taylor. Taylor was all reason and time and motion, so of course he was hated.

If you read the latest tomes from gurus and professors they are all in the Enlightenment tradition. They all claim to have found some formula for success. And we all want to believe that the world is like that.
We want there to be a simple success cook book out there: add three parts of motivation, a large dollop of vision and two measures of incentives and bingo - you have success.

Except, of course, the world is not quite like that.

The success formulas are the alchemist's nightmare: they do not turn base metals into gold: they turn gold into dust. Good firms do not become great: they go under. Jim Collins featured Gillette (taken over), Fannie Mae (bailed out) Nucor (profit warning) and Circuit City (plain bust) as exemplars to follow. No thank you.

Any success formula is doomed to fail. As soon as everyone does the same thing, disaster follows. See what happened with banking and blind belief in sub prime loans and risk management voodoo.

See what happened when everyone got mania. Success does not come from following a formula: it comes from daring to be different. Do not follow the rules, make the rules.

Everywhere we look, the rules which worked in the past are breaking down.

  • Accounting is struggling to deal with a world where assets are increasingly intangible.
  • Marketing is moving on from monolithic media to segments of one; from promising benefits to offering a lifestyle.
  • Organisations are flattening out, specialising and globalising all at the same time which fundamentally changes the nature of managerial work.
  • Command and control counts, but so does collaboration, cooperation and competition in the work place. Fun or furious as you pick.
What works for one firm or manager today may not work tomorrow or for another firm. This is the ultimate post modern gig: there is no universal truth.

There is only what works here and now. This is liberating news for managers: we are not drudges who have to follow a formula. We have to use our education, brains and judgement. Good managers will relish this, weak ones will cling to rules instead of judgement.

Want to know more? Check out my latest book here.

(Pic: Selma90 cc2.0)

  • Jo Owen

    Jo Owen practises what he preaches as a leader. He has worked with over 100 of the best, and a couple of the worst, organisations in the world, has built a business in Japan; started a bank (now HBOS business banking); was a partner at Accenture and brand manager at P&G. He is a serial entrepreneur whose start-ups include top 10 graduate recruiter Teach First and Start Up, which has helped over 250 ex-offenders start their own businesses. He has and has spent seven years researching leadership, strategy and organisation in tribal societies. His books include "Tribal Business School", "How to Lead and How to Manage." He is in demand as a speaker and coach on leadership and change. His websites include Tribal Business School and Leadership Partnership