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Over the last few posts in this series, I’ve argued that anything and everything that management experts, gurus, and academics—and even managers and CEOs themselves—have to say about being a “good manager” suffers from precisely the same flaw.

For each and every management principle or idea that has been impressed upon you, or that you’ve otherwise come to believe, an equally valid “principle” exists that argues for engaging in precisely the opposite behavior.

This is in part why so many managers struggle in the role. Whatever good management is, it does not seem to be something that anyone has been able to articulate in any sort of meaningful way.

This week, however, the news isn’t quite so dire. Far from being the dead-end it appears to be, acknowledging this problem, or weakness in theory—or whatever you want to call it—is actually an important first step towards defining what “good management” really is. Good management, I’ll argue in this post, isn’t about knowing what to do, as most people assume.

It’s about knowing when to do it.

Proverbs, not commandments

It turns out that (surprise) I am not the first person to have noticed the problem of contradiction and paradox in the management theory. Credit for that realization actually belongs to an organizational theorist and economist by the name of Hebert Simon.

Best known for his work in organizational decision-making (for which he won the 1978 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics), Simon’s interests were remarkably diverse – and included cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, public administration, management, sociology, and political science. And at least as far back as the 1940s, Simon realized that for certain administrative principles aimed at increasing organizational efficiency, equally plausible, but nevertheless contradictory principles could be found.[1]

In other words, he recognized that the administrative theories of his time were riddled with contradictions, and paradoxes.

For instance, it was Simon who first noticed that attempting to limit a manager’s span of control (the number of subordinates who directly report to a particular manager) and flattening an organization (reducing the number of levels in its hierarchy) are contradictory.[2] While the former is intended to prevent managers from over-extending themselves, the latter is thought to produce a more responsive, less bureaucratic organization. But in order to flatten a hierarchy, one must necessarily increase a manager’s span of control.

And thus the paradox.

Simon referred to these sorts of principles as “proverbs of administration” because like other proverbs, he argued, their utility is limited to justifying behavior after the fact. In his words:

“[For] rationalizing behavior that has already taken place or justifying action that has already been decided upon, proverbs are ideal. Since one is never at a loss to find one that will prove his point or the precisely contradictory point, for that matter—they are a great help in persuasion, political debate, and all forms of rhetoric.”[3]

Depending on the circumstance, he pointed out, a person could invoke the proverb “look before you leap” or “he who hesitates is lost” in order to justify his or her action (or inaction) in a particular situation.

And this is precisely the sort of slight-of-hand in which many management “experts” still routinely engage.

For example, in Good to Great (2001), management guru Jim Collins attributes the success that Wells-Fargo experienced in the 1990s to the fact that they “first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it.”[4] In other words, Collins invokes a well-worn management proverb—“hire good people”—in order to explain Wells-Fargo’s success in this instance.

But in In Search of Excellence (1982), Tom Peters and Robert Waterman argue that IBM’s extraordinary profitability in the 1970s was due to the company setting sales goals “so that almost all salespeople can make them…”[5] because “label a [person] a loser, and (he or she) will start acting like one.”[6] In other words, Peters and Waterman invoke another familiar management proverb—“motivate your employees”—to explain IBM’s success in this case. Notably, they also argue that a Wells-Fargo-type approach would not have worked for IBM. “No matter how intelligent IBM’s hiring, screening, and training…” they insist,” there is no way…to get all superstars…”[7]

But how can we be sure, other than Peters and Waterman’s say-so? Why wasn’t IBM able to hire all “superstars,” when Wells-Fargo appears to have been? Where is the critical analysis that would explain what was different for each company, or why their circumstances were unique? Maybe Wells-Fargo would have enjoyed similar (or even greater) success had they gone with IBM’s strategy? Or vice versa? Or perhaps Collins’ gave Wells-Fargo’s motivational efforts less credit than they deserved, meaning their hiring practices weren’t so critical after all? Again, how do we know, other than the say-so of this one management “expert”?

In the end then, there are just too many questions left unanswered by Collins, Peters, and Waterman for any of this “advice” to be terribly useful – or convincing. Despite any assurances to the contrary, the scientific method has not been applied in any meaningful way in either case, nor has causation been demonstrated.[8] Instead, these anecdotes should be seen for what they really are: convenient post-mortems in which a well-worn management “proverb” is used to rationalize a particular managerial behavior after the fact.

Just as Simon would have predicted.

Simon’s insights, it therefore must be acknowledged, were not only extraordinarily insightful, but remarkably prescient. Not only did he expose a serious flaw in the administrative theories of his time, his arguments can be invoked just as easily today to discredit the advice of an entirely new generation of celebrity CEOs, management consultants and gurus, and other management “experts.”[9]

Importantly, Simon also recognized that these sorts of “proverbs” could never serve as the foundation of any useful administrative theory:

“…when one seeks to use proverbs as the basis of a scientific theory, the situation is less happy. It is not that the propositions expressed by the proverbs are insufficient; it is rather that they prove too much. A scientific theory should tell what is true but also what is false. If Newton announced to the world that particles of matter exert either an attraction or a repulsion on each other, he would not have added much to scientific knowledge. His contribution consisted in showing that an attraction was exercised and in announcing the precise law governing its operation.”[10]

In the end, Simon advocated for a search for “valid principles” to replace the “proverbs” he’d identified.[11] And to be sure, I couldn’t agree more. But Simon also backtracked from this, arguing at one point for “assigning weights” to the existing principles (based on “empirical research and experimentation,” as he puts it) as opposed to replacing them outright.[12]

Apparently Simon wasn’t above contradicting himself either.

In any case, neither the non-contradictory principles, nor the “weights” that Simon hoped for have revealed themselves in the intervening decades. In fact, if my analysis is any indication, the instances of contradiction and paradox in administrative theory seem only to have increased.

So where did Simon go wrong?

What’s wrong with what Simon says

Simon’s mistake seems to lie in his choice of analogy. His decision to compare the identification of scientific management principles to Newton elucidating the laws of physics, is a poor one, and appears to have ultimately lead him astray.

Newton, for his part, was able to successfully distinguish between a correct theory (that particles exert an attractive force towards each other) and the incorrect one (that those forces are repulsive), before going on to describe the precise laws governing their behavior. With any pair of “proverbs,” however, it is not that one is correct and the other incorrect. Instead, both are correct – but under different circumstances.

No one doubts, for instance, that businesses should, on occasion, make an effort to “flatten” their hierarchies – like when bureaucracy becomes excessive, and the accompanying red-tape overwhelming. Nor can it be denied that a manager’s span of control should be limited under other circumstances – like when a manager has been pushed to his or her breaking point (or beyond), and the performance of the organization begins to suffer as a result. Again, both of these “proverbs” describe actions that managers must absolutely be willing to take on occasion.

So the better question to ask is: When should a company attempt to flatten its hierarchy, and when instead should it rein in its managers’ span of control? And in light of this, the analogy Simon should have made is to…well, the behavior of light.

As any physicist can tell you, sometimes light is best characterized as a stream of particles, and other times as a wave. While these descriptions would appear to be paradoxical (in terms of the physical world, particles and waves are just about as opposite as one can get), physicists nevertheless find value in this duality because they have also determined when, or under what circumstances, light should be treated as tiny particles, and when instead as energy. Knowing this, it is thus possible to utilize these two paradoxical descriptions in a predictive manner, and incorporate them into scientific theory.

Simon, for his part, seems to have failed to see this distinction – although he does comes tantalizingly close. At one point, he argued for “a study of the conditions [Simon’s emphasis] under which competing principles are respectively applicable.”[13] Or, more simply, figuring out when a given principle should be followed, or acted upon. And had he remained focused on this question, instead of the search for non-contradictory principles of administration (or assigning “weights” to the existing ones), who knows? He might have been able to contribute more substantively to organizational theory.

I have seen the light

So take heart. The paradoxes that currently plague administrative theory are not the dead-end they appear to be.

Similar to the study of the behavior of light, managing is about knowing the “when,” not just the “what.” Yes, managers and CEOs must take care to hire quality personnel (as Wells-Fargo apparently did), just as they must make a sincere effort to motivate their employees (as IBM seems to have). But more important is knowing when to be guided by each of these two management principles/proverbs, as opposed to the other.

In other words, it is not enough for a manager to simply know what to do.

A manager must know when to do it.

Next in the series: Managing: An art? Or a science..?


Blogger’s note: Portions of this post were first presented for critical review at the 7th International Critical Management Studies (CMS) Conference in Naples, Italy, on July 13, 2011.



[1] Please see “The Proverbs of Administration” by Herbert A. Simon, Public Administration Review, (Winter, 1946): 6, 53-67. Cited page numbers refer to the article as reprinted in Classics of Organization Theory, 5th Edition, Jay M. Shafritz and J. Steven Ott, eds., 2001, (Philadelphia, PA: Harcourt College Publishers), p. 112-124.

[2] Ibid., p. 115.

[3] Ibid., p. 112.

[4] Collins, Jim. 2001. Good to Great. New York: HarperBusiness, p. 41.

[5] Peters, Tom and Robert Waterman. 1982. In Search of Excellence. New York: HarperBusiness Essentials (2004 edition), p. 56.

[6] Ibid., p. 57.

[7] Ibid., p. 56.

[8] For an excellent discussion of how the “research” found in management advice books like Good to Great and In Search of Excellence fail to meet the standards of the scientific method, please see: The Halo Effect…and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers by Phil Rosenzweig. 2007. New York: The Free Press.

[9] To see how, please refer to posts 2-5 in this series: “Why you can throw out that management-advice book (Parts 1,2&3)” and “Is nothing sacred?

[10] Simon, op. cit., p. 112.

[11] Ibid., p. 121.

[12] Ibid., p. 123.

[13] Ibid., p. 121.