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

In a previous post, I argued that management advice books just aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

They’re too full of contradictory claims, paradoxical assertions, and other inconsistencies to be at all useful to the aspiring manager, or anyone hoping to become a better one.

Here’s a couple of examples of what I mean by this:

In Playing To Win (2013), former Proctor & Gamble Chairman and CEO A.G. Lafley writes that during his tenure, P&G’s corporate statement of purpose included producing ‘products of quality and value’ (p. 19). And yet several pages earlier, Lafley describes pricing a skin care product at $18.99 instead of $12.99 because market research showed that ‘prestige customers would doubt its efficacy’ if it were priced ‘too low.’[1] Savvy marketing certainly, but hardly consistent with a commitment to offering products of ‘value.’

In What Really Works (2003), author William Joyce holds Dollar General up as an exemplar of good management, offering this quote from 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.’[2] However, when ‘debt soared and the company foundered badly’ following the acquisition of a rival chain—a purchase approved by the former CEO’s own brother—Dollar General’s response was to re-hire Carl Jr. as CEO, who then abruptly ‘fired his brother.’[3] Positive and blame-free indeed.

To be sure, I’m not the only person to be critical of the mainstream management advice literature.

In Popular Management Books, Staffan Furusten argues that most of these 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…’[4]

In Management Gurus, 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.’[5]

In The Halo Effect, Phil Rosenzweig argues that the logic these texts employ is often fundamentally flawed. Many authors confuse correlation with causation, he contends, or falsely assume that quantity in research equates to quality in research. They also tend to disregard any evidence that fails to support their conclusions – or what Rosenzweig refers to as ‘connecting only the winning dots.’[6]

Finally, 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, ‘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.’[7]

But to find someone who’d identified the same problem I was encountering, we have to go back almost a hundred years.


Books of proverbs

In the 1940s, a Nobel prize-winning organizational theorist by the name of Herbert Simon noticed that for many administrative ‘principles’ aimed at improving organizational efficiency, equally plausible, yet nevertheless contradictory principles could be found.

For example, Simon observed that ‘flattening’ an organization—that is, reducing the number of levels in the organizational hierarchy—was (and still is) widely thought to improve organizational efficiency. This can reduce bureaucracy, it is argued, caused by the needless passing of information up and down the chain of command. But Simon also recognized that limiting a manager’s ‘span of control’ (the number of subordinates who report to him or her) is considered similarly beneficial to organizational function. It does this by preventing managers 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.

In that, 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 point or the precisely contradictory point, for that matter—they are a great help in persuasion, political debate, and all forms of rhetoric.

As principles to be guided by, however, Simon understood they are 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.

Simon was right, of course. You can’t have it both ways. Just as critically, if your understanding of something can be reduced to a bunch of contradictory propositions, or paradoxical assertions, you’re probably missing something pretty important.


Contingency theory

You may be wondering by now what the scholars and other academicians who teach at the today’s top business schools have to say about all this.

Unfortunately, not much.

The best they have to offer seems to be something called ‘contingency theory.’ Simply put, it goes like this:

Any and all management principles are ‘situationally dependent.’ That is, at times it may be best to do one thing (like flatten the hierarchy), but in other instances, it may be better to do the exact opposite thing (ie. limit a manager’s span of control). But when to do what…well, it just ‘depends.’ There are no universal or generalizable management principles upon which a manager might rely, in other words. Since each situation is unique unto itself, there is no ‘one best way’ to manage.[8]

This ‘theory’ would certainly account for all the contradiction and paradox in the management advice literature. If at times it’s best to do one thing, but in other instances it’s advantageous to do just the opposite, then none of this advice is ‘wrong’ per se.

It just lacks the specificity needed to make it in any way useful.

Imagine, for instance, if contingency theory were state-of-the-art in some other discipline – like medicine, or physics. In that hypothetical world, your doctor might reasonably reply ‘it depends’ when asked whether that pain in your side means your appendix has burst, and is need of immediate surgical removal, or you simply have an upset stomach. Or, suppose an engineer offered a similar response when asked whether an aging, heavily trafficked bridge is still safe to cross, or is in need of reinforcement.

Of course these things ‘depend.’ But it depends on what?

Fortunately for all of us, contingency theory is not the basis of these other sciences. Your doctor knows when—or under what circumstances—an appendectomy is appropriate, and engineers know when to replace aging bridges. Yes, it all ‘depends’ – but critically, these professions also know what it depends on.

Not so, in the realm of management, it seems.

Or at least not if the mainstream management advice literature is any indication. Sometimes it’s best to things one way, but at other times the opposite way is better – that’s the best these books have to offer. But without knowing when to do what, in the end it’s all contradiction, inconsistency, and paradox.

In The Year Without Pants, Scott Berkun offers some insight of relevance here:

No one can ever follow it all [advice]. This is the advice paradox: no matter how much advice you have, you must still decide intuitively what to use and what to avoid. Even if you seek meta-advice, advice on which advice to take, the paradox still applies as you make the same choice about that advice too’ (p. 74).[9]

That pretty much sums it up. Without knowing what to do when, there’s not much for a manager to go on. At best these books might serve as a useful source of ‘proverbs’ which which managers might use to rationalize whatever choice they made in a particular situation.


Don’t be a dummy

In their management primer Managing for Dummies (2003), Bob Nelson and Peter Economy articulate a sentiment that probably rings true to most of us:

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

Several pages later, however, they assure readers that:

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).

That’s good news to be sure – otherwise, why bother reading further? But if becoming a great manager were as ‘easy’ as they claim, wouldn’t good ones not be so scarce? And shouldn’t you be well on your way to becoming a one yourself after reading their text?

Not so fast, as Nelson and Economy caution:

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

Well, whatever.

In his aptly titled book, Flawed Advice and the Management Trap (2000), Chris Argyris gets to the heart of the matter:

The problem is, most of it (management advice) does not work—that is most of it is not actionable. It is simply too full of abstract claims, inconsistencies, and logical gaps to be useful as a concrete basis for concrete actions in concrete settings (p. vii).

So let me reiterate my final bit of advice to you: Put down that management advice book you may be reading.

It’s just not worth your time.



[1] Lafley, A.G., Playing To Win, p. 12-14.

[2] Joyce, William, What Really Works, p. 33.

[3] Ibid., p. 32.

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

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

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

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

[8] There are those who would argue that this is to oversimplify the theory. 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.

[9] Perhaps just as interesting, knowing about this ‘advice paradox’ was still not enough to prevent Mr. Berkun from writing his own book on managing – a text that also contains it’s share of contradictions. For example: In The Year Without Pants, Berkun argues that when it comes to managing/leading, ‘Trust is everything’ (p. 45). However, he later describes a scenario in which he deliberately misleads his own employees: ‘The one mandatory topic [for the meeting]…was deciding what project to work on. This decision was something of a ruse since I always knew well before we arrived what the project would be…’ (p. 216).

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