Monday, January 3, 2011

And now for something completely different ...

I have a collection of books about management that I've accrued over the years.  From Peter Drucker to Tom Peters to Jim Collins, the shelf covers several decades of management theory and practice.  As I look at the shelf I realize one consistent feature across most of those books.  Each one attempts to create a simple unified theory of management.  Many of the books attempt to boil management into a few guiding principles.  These simple clear principles can then be applied by the reader in a general-purpose manner to solve most management problems.

What is interesting is how convincing each book's ideas can be.  For example, no one can read "In Search of Excellence" without developing a passion for culture.  Consistently across each of these books there are a few key messages containing extraordinarily compelling management advice.  The only problem: although there is some overlap and some consistency, most of the messages are quite different.  Each author has her or his separate message.  So, who is right?  But if one author is right, then someone has to be wrong.

Maybe what is missing is the realization that you cannot boil management down into a few key guiding principles.  Maybe management is so circumstance based that there can be no grand unification theory.  Maybe each instance of applied management requires specific and unique skills.  Maybe the case study method taught in business school is the right way to go - teach managers how to react to unique circumstances rather than attempt to to teach them how to apply management theory.

In management there are no silver bullets.  There is no single theory or idea that solves every management problem.  It may be human nature to look for ways to simplify our lives.  We may cling to the idea that a single brilliant idea will solve all our challenges and issues.  However, with so many brilliant authors providing so many compelling ideas, I suspect they are all right to a certain extent.  Our challenge as practicing managers is to undertand when to apply the material we've learned and when to just throw the book out the window and try something completely different.

Maybe I should throw out that dusty bookshelf.


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