advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

OPINION: Throw out that management advice book (Part 2)

In a previous post, I argued that management advice books just aren’t worth the time you might spend reading them.

They’re too full of contradictory claims, paradoxical assertions, and logical inconsistencies to be at all useful to the practicing manager.

Here’s a couple examples of the sort of flawed logic I’m referring to:

  • In Playing To Win (2013), former Proctor & Gamble Chairman and CEO A.G. Lafley writes of the importance of offering customers “products of quality and value” (p. 19). Yet several pages earlier, he describes pricing a skin care product at $18.99 instead of $12.99 not because of its “value,” but because market research showed “prestige customers” would doubt its efficacy if it were priced “too low” (p. 12-14).
  • In What Really Works (2003), William Joyce holds Dollar General up as an exemplar of good management, quoting the company’s website: “We [at Dollar General] believe in emphasizing strengths in a positive and blame-free environment, where accountability for mistakes is processed in a personal and team developmental way” (p. 33). But when the company foundered following the take-over of a rival chain—a purchase orchestrated by a former CEO’s sibling—Dollar General’s response was to re-hire Carl Jr. as CEO, who then abruptly “fired his brother” (p. 32).


To be clear, I’m not the only person to criticize the mainstream management advice literature.

In Popular Management Books (1999), Staffan Furusten argues that most texts propagate “institutionalized myths, beliefs, institutions, and ideologies about management…” Instead of offering useful advice, he complains, “some of the bestsellers in the management book genre…should probably be seen more as entertainment…[1]

In Management Gurus (1996), Andrzej Huczynski singles out for criticism those books written by so-called celebrity CEOs. The mistaken presumption, he contends, is that the average person will be able to implement any of it successfully. “There inevitably lurks a sub-text,” Huczynski writes, “that actually implies that you must also be a genius (like the writer) to make it all work.[2]

In The Halo Effect (2007), Phil Rosenzweig points to the faulty logic these texts often employ. Correlation is confused with causation, quantity of research is wrongly equated to quality in research, and any evidence that doesn’t support the author’s claims is disregarded – or what Rosenzweig refers to as “connecting only the winning dots.[3]

And Brad Jackson simply wonders if anyone reads these books, much less follows their advice. “On a very basic level,” he writes in Management Gurus and Management Fashions (2001), “no one appears to be sure who reads them, let alone understands why they read them and what they do differently as a result of reading them.[4]


Books of proverbs


To find someone who’s noticed the problem I was encountering, however, I had to go back nearly a hundred years.

In the 1940s, Nobel prize-winning organizational theorist Herbert Simon pointed out that for many administrative “principles” aimed at improving organizational efficiency, equally plausible, yet nevertheless contradictory principles could also be found.

For instance, Simon noted that “flattening” an organization—that is, reducing the number of levels in the organizational hierarchy—was (and still is) widely believed to improve organizational efficiency. Presumably it does this by eliminating the bureaucracy and red tape caused by the needless of passing information up and down the chain of command. But Simon also recognized that limiting a manager’s “span of control”—or the number of subordinates who report to them—is also thought to improve organizational function by preventing a manager from spreading themselves too thin. The problem—or paradox—Simon realized, is that in order to flatten a hierarchy one must necessarily increase a manager’s span of control.

And so these two principles contradict each other.

Simon referred to such concepts as the “proverbs of administration” because like other proverbs, he argued, their usefulness is limited entirely to rationalizing behavior after the fact. Depending on the circumstance, for example, one might invoke the proverb “look before you leap” or “he/she who hesitates is lost” in order to justify one’s choice of action (or inaction) in a particular situation. In Simon’s 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 [sic] point or the precisely contradictory point, for that matter—they are a great help in persuasion, political debate, and all forms of rhetoric.[5]

As principles to be guided by, however, Simon felt they were essentially worthless:

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.[6]

Simon was right, of course. You can’t have it both ways – or if you try, you’d better have more to go on.


Contingency theory


What, you may be wondering, do the management scholars and other academics who teach at today’s top business schools have to say about all this?

Unfortunately, not much.

Something called contingency theory seems to the best there is on offer to account for the problem that I and Mr. Simon both identified. Organizational theorist Gareth Morgan sums up this “philosophy” as follows:

“There is no one best way of organizing. The appropriate form depends on the kind of task or environment with which one is dealing.”[7]

In other words, according to a contingency theorist there are no hard and fast principles in management because everything is situationally dependent.[8] For instance, at times it may best to flatten the hierarchy – but in other situations, limiting a manager’s span of control may be the right things to do.

But when to do what? That would seem to depend on the specific circumstances of the situation you’re dealing with.

Of course, the limitations of such “theory” are probably already obvious to you.

Imagine, for example, if contingency theory were state-of-the-art in other disciplines – like medicine or physics. You might go to your doctor with a pain in your stomach, wondering if it’s food poisoning or something more serious (like a burst appendix). And yet all they have to say is: “It depends.” Or, suppose an engineer responded similarly when asked whether an aging, heavily trafficked bridge is still safe to cross, or needs reinforcement.

Of course it “depends.” But it depends on what?

Fortunately for all of us, neither is true for medicine or physics. Your doctor knows when to perform an appendectomy and when not to, and engineers have a pretty good idea when a bridge might need to be replaced. Yes, it “depends.” But these professions also know what it depends on.

Not so in the realm of management. For the time being at least, the management scholars of today can only shrug their shoulders and confess that sometimes it’s best to do one thing, and sometimes another.[9]

Beyond that, it’s up to you it seems.


Don’t be a dummy


In looking for (and not finding) answers to some of these questions, at some point I picked up a copy of Managing for Dummies (2003) by Bob Nelson and Peter Economy.

While I didn’t find any insight in their text either, the following passages kind of sum up my frustration with management advice literature:

[G]ood management is a scarce commodity (p. 10).

Agreed – or at least that rings true to me. Throughout my own career, I can honestly say I’ve either seen, or reported to more bad managers than good ones.

Managers and managers-to-be can easily [my emphasis] discover how to become good managers by following the recommendations in the sections that follow (p. 24).

Great – or at least let’s hope so, right? Otherwise why bother reading further… But if becoming a good manager is so “easy,” wouldn’t we expect to see more of them?

[S]imply reading a book (even this one) or watching someone else manage…isn’t enough (p. 27).

Well, whatever.

So let me reiterate my advice one last time: Put down that management advice book you may be reading.

It’s just not worth your time.



[1] Furusten, Staffan. Popular Management Books: How they are made and what they mean for organizations (1999). New York: Routledge, p. 142&58.

[2] Hucszynski, Andrzej. Management Gurus – Revised Edition (1996). New York: Routledge, p. 66.

[3] Rosenzweig, Phil. The Halo Effect…and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers (2007) New York: The Free Press, multiple pages.

[4] Jackson, Brad. Management Gurus and Management Fashions (2001) New York: Routledge, p. 39.

[5] Simon, Hebert A. “The Proverbs of Administration”, Public Administration Review, (Winter, 1946): 6, 53-67. Reprinted in Classics of Organization Theory, 5th Edition, Jay M. Shafritz and J. Steven Ott, eds., 2001, (Philadelphia, PA: Harcourt College Publishers), p. 112.

[6] Ibid., p. 112.

[7] Morgan, Gareth. Images of Organization, Executive Edition (1998) New York: Berrett-Koehler, p. 44.

[8] Morgan also claims that contingency theory “has established itself as a dominant perspective in modern organizational analysis.” Ibid., p. 44.

[9] There are certainly those who would disagree with how I’ve characterized contingency theory here. Please see: Luthans, Fred, and Todd I. Stewart. “The Reality or Illusion of a General Contingency Theory of Management: A Response to the Longenecker and Pringle Critique” Academy of Management Review, July, 1978: 683-687.

[ 1 Comment ]

  1. Tim Eiler

    First, I agree overall with your overall premise. As opposed to disciplines like engineering, in which one finds natural laws most often are there to inform decisions to be taken, or medicine, where the ‘laws’ that guide decisions are based on empirical measurements of outcomes and applied collective judgment, management has little to go on.

    Doctors are willing to help each other, even when they compete on a business level. Their collective goal is improvement of patient health. Thus, they’re willing to create things like the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) to help give everyone up-to-date practices. Business, like medicine – and quite the opposite from engineering – has to rely on judgment, but competition in the absence of cooperation means there are no ‘DSMs’ for business leaders.

    Management books attempt to bridge that gap with anecdotally-based guidance. That’s where things fall apart and can rapidly become spurious or worse. There is no incentive for a collective group of managers to work together to develop a set of ‘universal’ guidance for managers to use in diagnosing and treating the business they manage. Doctors have ‘coopetition’ figured out. Managers are completely disincentivized from coopetition!

    You wrote:
    “The problem – or paradox – Simon realized, is that in order to flatten a hierarchy one must necessarily increase a manager’s span of control. And so these two principles contradict each other.”

    I think I mostly, but not completely, disagree with that. Let me explain.

    I’ve worked in places with tall structures and places with flat structures, as well as places shifting from one to the other. When an organization flattens, they often add more managers so that the span of control for managers isn’t so large to be unworkable. Business leaders don’t want their businesses to fail, after all. Its only once the org is flattened that I often have seen leaders start to experiment, intentionally or otherwise, with chipping away at that new span of control status quo. Also, a flat structure is supposed to reduce comm and decision-making bottlenecks by reducing the passing of things up and down the chain of command. A flat org has, in my experience simply exchanged the form of vertical bottlenecks with the ‘who owns that decision and how to we pass things back and forth between them and us” in a horizontal feed. Kind of a conservation of bottlenecks…. Thus, I don’t think Simon’s complaint is universally true enough to be able to make his claim – kind of ironic in a way, isn’t it.

    Simon is essentially using circular logic. It’s bad to make broad, unsubstantiated claims in a management book, he says in an anti-management-book screed!

    I’ve read plenty of leadership books that contain useful content. Some have empirically repeatable guidance, like Deming’s ‘Out of the Crisis.’ Others give anecdotal views of ways that have worked in some instances to solve a management problem.

    I could say that the claim that people should NOT read these books is wrong – maybe the answer is to read ALL the books of this type one can lay hands on. The former leaves a manager with only her/his knowledge and experience as a guide. The latter, while still not an empirical, data tested set of rules to use, at least might get one somewhat closer to the goal of comprehensive data.

    How many management books will I be reading this summer, you may wonder. Zero. I don’t have the kind of time it would take to read, analyze, and then structure the accumulated data into meaningful, useful guidance. 🙂

    Nonetheless, there is potentially the kernel of a business idea there for someone, I think.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


To comment on a specific post, scroll to the bottom of the post’s page and submit your comment there. To search the archive, click here