I enjoy a good management book as much as the next person – oh, wait, probably a bit more as I actually do enjoy reading them. Anyway, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they often promise a whole deal more than they can deliver, so I was happy to see The Economist taking a stab at the gurus a few weeks ago in the article The three habits of highly irritating management gurus.
Here’s one rather fundamental error in the guru literature:
The gurus routinely ignore such basic precautions as providing a control group. Five years after “In Search of Excellence” appeared, a third of its ballyhooed companies were in trouble. Andrew Henderson of the University of Texas has recently subjected “excellence studies” to rigorous statistical analysis. He concludes that luck is just as plausible an explanation of their success as excellence.
Henderson et al put it even more bluntly in their HBR article:
We’re not the first to challenge success studies, but so far the criticism has focused on data collection and analysis. Our concerns go much deeper. Many of the “great” companies cited are, in fact, nothing special; consequently, the researchers are simply imposing patterns on random data. That’s not science—it’s astrology.
Just goes to show that prediction is difficult – especially of the future. So considering the data the books are based on is more or less invalid, what good are these disparaged books by the gurus? In my experience, they do provide good alternative viewpoints into problems and help in taking a little bit of a different perspective to things. They help in generating some internal diversity in thinking and that’s always a good thing. And note that I say diversity; changing your viewpoint to align perfectly with the touted system in any given book is not diversity, it’s just altering the tunnel vision to a different version. Don’t use the guru books to merely change your way of thinking from one way to another – use them to broaden your thinking.
I also suggest you give the books’ authors as much money as their books are worth when compared to the promises they make, and borrow them from a library instead of buying. Other than just a few gems, it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever want to return to the books after reading them once. And if you and a hundred other people use the library book, the gurus get an appropriately small revenue slice for each read.
For a more detailed look at the topic, check out these resources:
- Andrew Henderson’s page at the University of Texas
- Deloitte: The persistence project
- Harvard Business Review: Are “Great” Companies Just Lucky? by by Michael E. Raynor, Mumtaz Ahmed, and Andrew D. Henderson
- .. and if you haven’t seen The System by Derren Brown, watch it here. It’s quite long and in multiple parts but very good. And don’t read the comments before you’ve seen it all.