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.


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  • April 1, 2016

    < 1 minute read


    A very short post…

    Apr 1, 2016

    This week I’d like to take a moment to address what has so far proven to be the most frequent complaint about my blog:

    The posts are too long.

    Yes, yes – guilty as charged, I’m afraid. My posts are a bit longer than those you usually find on other blogsites (~1500-2500 words). But in my defense, it’s not like I didn’t warn you (see the “About” section.) And even the longer entries only take about 5 minutes to read.

    Nevertheless, I appreciate the feedback. And to show my appreciation, this week I’m going to keep it brief. (Actually, you’re almost half-way through this particular post already.) But I’ll even do you one better. In the space of a single sentence, I’m going to sum up the content of my entire blog, start to finish. And not just the last three months worth of posts, but all future content for however long I continuing blogging.

    That’s right, if you read just this one post, you’ll get it all – and you can stop following my blog altogether, without worrying about missing anything.

    So here it goes…are you ready?


    Your boss isn’t really your boss.


    What makes me say that, you might ask?

    Well, I thought you wanted me to keep it short.




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  • March 25, 2016

    10 minute read


    In a recent post, I argued that management advice books—like Good to GreatIn Search of Excellence, or Who Moved My Cheese?—aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.


    Because they’re just too full of inconsistencies, contradictions, and paradoxes to be of much use to anyone.[1]

    This week, I’m going dismiss what passes for “conventional management wisdom” these days. Those clichéd or otherwise stereotypical characterizations of what we think managers need to do, or how they should behave.

    And I’m going to do so using precisely the same argument.

    For every pearl of wisdom that you’ve read, heard, or otherwise come to believe about being a “good manager,” I’ll offer an example of a successful CEO or businessperson who has acted or behaved in precisely the opposite way…and done so without any apparent cost to his or her company, or career.

    In fact, in some cases it may have actually contributed to their success.


    Conventional management wisdom…rebutted

    So let’s get right to it.

    If you’ve ever managed before—and even if you haven’t—you probably think that in order to be successful, you must have a clear vision or winning strategy for your team, department, or whatever part of the company you’ve been charged with managing.

    This idea is all but considered management dogma by many, in part because of such now famous “vision statements” as Microsoft’s (“A computer on every desk and in every home”), Nike’s (“To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world; *If you have a body, you are an athlete.”), and The Walt Disney Company’s (“To make people happy”).[2] And such clear declarations of purpose certainly seem to have served these corporations well.


    • According to David Packard, he and Bill Hewlett had no such vision for their company when they first started out. In The HP Way (1995), Packard lists an electronic harmonica tuner and an “exerciser” designed to stimulate muscle development with electric pulses as being amongst HP’s first projects.[3] While their company did eventually focus on electronics, over the years their products nevertheless continued to vary wildly, ranging from audio oscillators, microwave signal generators, and oscilloscopes, to calculators, computers, and printers.
    • Consider too the 3M Company. Not only was their original vision flawed, the company actually came into being as the result of a series of mistakes. According to company lore, the founders’ original intent was to sell a valuable mineral called corundum, which they thought they were mining. In fact, it was something called anthrosite (a mistake they realized only after selling some of it). They then tried to make sandpaper from this material (while keeping their error a secret), but those efforts were also unsuccessful. And the sandpaper they did eventually make (using garnet) at first kept falling apart.[4]


    Conventional management wisdom also has it that in order to be successful, a CEO or manager must necessarily be charismatic, and perhaps even a bit controlling. That in order to get the absolutely very best out of people (or better yet, push them to their productive limits) you have to be incredibly focused – and maybe even possess a personality that’s a bit larger than life. This stereotype has been reinforced over the years by such outsized CEO personalities as Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca, Virgin’s Richard Branson, and Apple’s Steve Jobs, to name but a few.


    • Automattic[5] CEO Matt Mullenweg would hardly seem to fit this description – or at least not according to author and former WordPress employee, Scott Berkun. In The Year Without Pants (2013), Berkin writes that Mullenweg “doesn’t fit the CEO/founder profile of wanting to be at the center of attention at all times.”[6] Mullenweg, he furthermore observes, “often speaks softly and with a smile,” and that “there’s a hint of shyness to him.”[7]
    • Consider too the former president and CEO of the Campbell Soup Company, Douglas Conant, who wasn’t particularly outspoken or charismatic by his own admission. “I enjoy being by myself,” Conant once confessed.[8] “I oftentimes prefer to listen to people than to speak and I find it very difficult to pretend that I’m naturally out-going when I’m not.”


    You’ve probably also come to believe that in order to achieve even moderate success in anything—much less in business—you must necessarily possess a certain degree of confidence and/or self-assurance.

    And this is for good reason. Pop culture is rife with examples of athletes, entertainers, and the like who do not lack for self-esteem, regardless of whether they are outwardly gregarious (like LeBron James), or are perhaps more quietly confident (like Tiger Woods). The same seems to be true in the business world. For instance, former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz did not suffer from a lack of self-assurance it seems.[9] But nor does Bill Gates, the more reserved former CEO of Microsoft.[10]


    • Not all top level competitors are so confident. Consider legendary Formula One race car driver Jackie Stewart, who once confessed in an interview:

    “I had no idea I was gonna [sic] turn out to be as successful as I turned out to be. I mean just in victories, and money, or anything you want. I never thought that I could ever have reached that level, and I never thought that I could keep it at that level. And I always thought that other people were cleverer, better, or more skilled than me to do the job.”[11]

    • And then there is Bill Gates’ own former partner, Paul Allen. Even though Allen himself feels that the mark of a great innovator includes “an aura of confidence,”[12] his memoir reveals something of a less-than-confident side to him. Indeed, his primary thought while demonstrating an early version of Microsoft Basic was: “There is just no way this is going to work.”[13]


    It is also understood that in order to be a successful manager, executive, or CEO, you must, must, must be willing to work hard, and put in long hours – as well as motivate others to do the same.

    Again, popular management culture abounds with examples of managers and other businesspeople who maintain, and advocate for, exhaustive work schedules. For example, in her book The Mary Kay Way (2008), Mary Kay Ash (of Mary Kay Cosmetics) recounts her decision to start getting up at 5 am every morning in order to squeeze more hours into her workday. This habit, she proudly notes, was adopted many of her top sales directors, who then began referring to themselves as the “Mary Kay Five O’clock Club.”[14]


    • Entrepreneur and self-made millionaire Tim Ferriss would hardly seem to be cut from similar cloth – or at least not if the title of his best-selling advice book, The 4-Hour Work Week (2007), is to be interpreted literally..
    • Nor was Andrew Carnegie much of a workaholic, it seems. According to a recent biography of the 19th Century industrialist, by the age of 32 Carnegie was able to leave the day-to-day affairs of his various enterprises to be managed by others, and instead spent considerable time travelling.[15] In his autobiography, Carnegie furthermore recalls the moment he first realized that he needn’t work hard to get rich:

    “It [a dividend check from an early investment] gave me the first penny of revenue from capital—something that I had not worked for with the sweat of my brow. ‘Eureka!” I cried. ‘Here’s the goose that lays the golden eggs.’[16]


    If you don’t need to put in long hours to be successful, conventional management wisdom would still have you believe that mangers must push themselves and their employees with aggressive goals based on some reliable metric.

    This idea—that setting hard numeric targets is critical to success—is an oft-repeated management mantra, and has been championed by everyone from Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father of the “scientific management” movement of the late 19th century,[17] to the purveyors of Six Sigma programs today.[18]


    • Ray Kroc, the former CEO and founder of McDonald’s hardly seems to have been driven by the numbers. In Grinding It Out (1977), he claims that as a salesman “I didn’t bother with sales goals… I didn’t need any artificial incentives to keep me working at top speed.”[19]
    • And then there is Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the management consultant to whom some measure of credit has been given for Japan’s industrial turnaround in the 1970s and 80s. In Out of the Crisis (1982), he writes that “the most important figures needed for management of any organization are unknown and unknowable”[20] – a statement all the more remarkable considering Deming was a professional statistician.


    Surely, you’re probably thinking, there are no such exceptions when it comes to deadlines, or those all-important budgets that managers are charged with enforcing…

    • Well, according to Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, “Apple design projects have no formal start and no predetermined finish.” He then goes on to say, “it’s so very hard to measure [what designers do]. We can be working on something for a long time and still not know quite how its going to work out.”[21]
    • And in Good Profit (2015), businessman Charles Koch (of Koch Industries) argues that “In general at Koch, we have found budgets to be ineffective as a management tool. In fact, they become absolutely counterproductive when they are allowed to create perverse incentives, such as basing bonuses on meeting a budget…”[22]


    Still, if there’s any one management principle that would seem to be unassailable, it’s this notion that managers must get their employees to come together and work as a team. As Jack Welch repeatedly emphasizes in his best-selling management memoir Winning (2005), “the team with the best players wins.”[23] And self-described team development expert Peter Lencioni insists that good teamwork “remains the ultimate competitive advantage.”[24]

    • However, Ricardo Semler, majority owner of the Brazilian company Semco Partners,[25] would appear to feel differently. “Employees,” he writes, “must be reassured that self-interest is their foremost priority, one they must take care not to replace with company or other interests.” And when it comes to employees getting along with each other, Semler has this to say: “You don’t have to like people to work with them.”[26]


    Finally, what of a manager’s capacity to lead – the importance of which is all but unquestioned by the global business community. In Becoming a Leader (1989), for example, leadership expert Warren Bennis insists that what most companies need are “leaders, not managers.”[27] He then goes on to praise such CEOs as John Sculley (formerly of PepsiCo and Apple)[28] and James Burke (formerly of Johnson&Johnson) for having strong leadership skills.


    • Nucor’s[29] CEO Ken Iverson would hardly seem to fit what most people conceive of when it comes to strong leadership. In Plain Talk (1998), Iverson writes how all the important decisions at his company were made at the division level during his tenure, and not by him. “Management,” he says, “listens.”[30]
    • Consider too that Bennis himself can be found praising Iverson’s deferential approach, despite the obvious contradiction. Indeed, in the forward to Iverson’s book, Bennis writes: “Over 35 years, Ken never practiced (nor tolerated) a command-and-control style,” and that like Iverson, “good leaders must also be good followers.”[31]
    • And Vineet Nayar seems not to have been terribly interested in taking charge either. While CEO of HCL Technologies,[32] he set up a system in which any employee, at any level, might weigh in on executive matters. In Employees First, Customers Second (2010) Nayar points out that “much more knowledge existed outside my office than within it”[33] and that managers “must avoid the urge to answer every question or provide a solution to every problem.”[34]


    So what is “good management”?

    And so there you have it.

    Virtually everything you’ve probably come to believe about what managers need to do, or how they should behave, is not carved in stone after all. Being lazy, or introverted, or having no real vision—or lacking the capacity to lead—is not the kiss of death that you might think it to be for a manager or CEO.

    So what now?

    Well, fear not. In the next post in this series, I’ll start sorting this all out. I’ll explain why all of this contradiction and paradox—both in what you’ve come to believe about managing, and in what you have perhaps read—is not the dead-end it appears to be. Instead, it’s actually an important step towards understanding what good management really is.

    Being a manager, I’ll argue next, is not about knowing what to do, as most people assume.

    It’s about knowing when to do it.


    Next in the seriesIt’s not what you do. It’s when you do it…



    [1] For more on how I came to this conclusion, please see my post “Why you can throw out that management advice book (Parts 2 & 3).”

    [2] http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2015/06/microsoft-has-a-new-mission-statement-and-its-basically-the-same-as-its-old-one/; http://retailindustry.about.com/od/retailbestpractices/ig/Company-Mission-Statements/Nike-Company-Mission-Statement.htm; http://www.fastcompany.com/1821021/defining-your-companys-vision, respectively. Retrieved March 23, 2016.

    [3] Packard, David. 1995. The HP Way. New York: HarperBusiness, p. 39.

    [4] “3M at 100 – on the right path for growth? Minnesota Public Radio, Andrew Haeg reporting. Aired June 10, 2002; http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/200206/03_haega_3Mhistory/. Retrieved Feb 23, 2016.

    [5] Automattic is the company behind the open-source blogging software WordPress. The company employs 430 people and is currently valued at $1.16 billion. (http://recode.net/2014/05/05/wordpress-parent-automattic-has-raised-160-million-now-valued-at-1-16-billion-post-money/. Retrieved March 23, 2016.)

    [6] Berkun, Scott. 2013. The Year Without Pants. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Boss, 2013, p. 140.

    [7] Ibid., p. 140&141.

    [8] Conant, Douglas. “Are You an Introverted Boss?” Harvard Business Review (online version), April 4, 2011. https://hbr.org/2011/04/are-you-an-introverted-boss/. Retrieved October 1, 2015.

    [9] Lutz’s 2003 book on management and leadership is titled Guts: 8 Laws of Business from One of the Most Innovative Business Leaders of Our Time, and includes claims such as the following: “This book is full of contradictions because Bob Lutz has never been hobbled by a slavish concern with consistency.”

    [10] From YouTube: “Q and A with Bill Gates on self-confidence and succeeding in an extroverted world.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2S9A1RcEN5w. Retrieved Feb. 23, 2016.

    [11] From Roman Polanski’s documentary “Weekend of a Champion” (2013), bonus material, 125:52.

    [12] Allen, Paul. 2011. Idea Man. London, England: Portfolio/Penguin, p. 222.

    [13] Ibid., p. 81.

    [14] Ash, Mary Kay. 2008. The Mary Kay Way. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., p. 64.

    [15] See Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw, 2006, (New York: Penguin Books).

    [16] Carnegie, Andrew. 1920. The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie and the Gospel of Wealth (John Charles Van Dyke, ed.). New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, p. 43. (Page numbers refers to Digireads.com edition, published 2009)

    [17] Taylor, Frederick Winslow. 1919. The Principles of Scientific Management. (Cosimo Classics edition published 2006, New York).

    [18] Pande, Peter S. Robert Neuman, and Roland Cavanagh. 2000. The Six Sigma Way: How GE Motorola, and Other Top Companies Are Honing Their Perspective. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    [19] Kroc, Ray. 1977. Grinding It Out, p. 64. (Page number refers to St. Martin’s Press edition, NY, 1987.)

    [20] Deming, W. Edwards. 1982. Out of the Crisis. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, p. 20.

    [21] Tyrangiel, Josh, “Touch me harder: The grinding work behind a single iPhone feature,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Sept. 14-20, 2015, p. 47.

    [22] Koch, Charles. 2015. Good Profit. New York: Crown Business, p. 164.

    [23] Welch, Jack, with Suzy Welch. 2005. Winning. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., p. 7.

    [24] Lencioni, Patrick. 2002. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. San Francisco: Jossey-Boss, p. vii.

    [25] Semco Partners is a privately controlled Brazilian company which, under Semler’s leadership, grew in revenue from $4 million (US) in 1984, to $212 million in 2003. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ricardo_Semler. Retrieved Feb. 24, 2016.)

    [26] Semler, Ricardo. 2003. The Seven-Day Weekend. London: Random House, p. 39.

    [27] Bennis, Warren. 1989. On Becoming a Leader. New York: Basic Books.

    [28] In Bennis’ defense, his book was published prior to Sculley being fired by Apple (but nevertheless after Sculley fired Steve Jobs). For more perspective on why was fired by his own company, check out my post “What’s the deal with Steve Jobs?”

    [29] Nucor is the largest producer of steel in the US, and the largest recycler of any material in North America. In 2015, the company reported $16.4 billion US in revenue. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nucor and http://www.nucor.com/investor/news/?rid=2133153. Retrieved March 23, 2016.)

    [30] Iverson, Ken. 1998. Plain Talk, New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., p. 36.

    [31] Bennis, Warren. From the foreword to Plain Talk by Ken Inverson. 1998. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., p. viii.

    [32] HCL Technologies is a multinational IT services company headquartered in India. In 2015, the company reported $6.1 billion (US) in revenue. (http://www.hcltech.com/investors/fast-facts. Retrieved March 23, 2016.)

    [33] Nayar, Vineet. 2010. Employees First, Customers Second. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, p. 146.

    [34] Ibid., p. 13.


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  • 2 minute read


    Paradox of the week – The First 90 Days

    Mar 18, 2016

    This Friday, another installment of the Paradox of the Week.[*] And since it’s coming up on ninety days since I started this blog, I thought a closer look at Michael Watkins’ The First 90 Days (2003, Harvard Business Review Press) would be appropriate:

    According to Watkins, the “fundamental goal” of his book is to “provide new leaders with practical frameworks for diagnosing their situations and developing their own customized transition acceleration plans [my emphasis]” (p. 11). Why? Because in Watkins’ eyes “the actions you take [as a leader] during your first three months…will largely determine whether you succeed or fail” (p. 1) “Your goal,” he furthermore posits, “should be to arrive as rapidly as possible at the breakeven point, where you are net contributor…” (p. 2). Time, it seems, is of the essence.

    But if this is true, it then seems odd to find Watkins’ text peppered with statements advising readers to be deliberate, and not to move too fast. For example (my emphasis in each case):

    • “Few new leaders take the time to think through systematically about their learning priorities.” (p. 35)
    • “…gradually widen your focus…” (p. 54)
    • “The skills that contribute to success…are more akin to farming than hunting” (p. 68).
    • “Time urgency is less extreme…” (same page)
    • “[Some leaders] risk…moving too fast…” (same page)
    • “There is no need for urgent early action…” (p. 70)
    • “Fortunately, you will have time if you give yourself permission to move cautiously…” (same page)
    • Take some time to assign the pieces in your new portfolio…” (p. 73)
    • “…you can afford to take more time and plan.” (p. 85).
    • “…you should engage in something akin to guerilla warfare, slowly chipping at their resistance…” (p. 99)
    • Take some time to plan…” (p. 111)
    • ‘’If it takes some more time…then so be it.” (p. 121)
    • “Aligning an organization is like preparing for a long sailing trip.” (p. 135)
    • “…plan for bigger changes later…” (p. 141)
    • “More fundamental changes should wait…” (p. 142)
    • “It is worthwhile to spend some time thinking…” (p. 166)
    • “…take a moment to consider the alternatives.” (p.171)
    • “So take the time…” (p. 192)
    • “…transitions are marathons, not sprints.” (p. 216)


    And finally, I’d just like to point out that in Becoming a Manager (2003)—also published by Harvard Business Review Press, by the way—Professor Linda Hill offers the following thought from her own studies of new managers transitioning into the role:

    “Take ninety days to see what you have. It takes that long to get behind the numbers…” (p. 169)


    See you next week.


    [*]An instance in which a business or management “expert”/author/advice-giver/guru offers contradictory, or otherwise paradoxical advice, typically without any apparent awareness of having done so. For more on why this is such a common occurrence, please see: “Why you can throw out that management advice book (parts 1,2&3).”



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  • March 11, 2016

    4 minute read


    This week, I’ve decided to return to a management paradox I first brought up a couple of posts ago.

    As you might remember, in “Throw out that management advice book: (Part 3)” I pointed out that management author/expert/guru Peter Drucker couldn’t seem to decide whether the financial interests of a company should be a manager’s top priority, or whether the legal, ethical, and/or moral considerations of society as a whole should come first.

    For instance, in The Essential Drucker (2001) he declares that “the manager is duty bound to preserve the performance capacity of the institution in his care. To jeopardize it, no matter how noble the motive, is irresponsibility.”[1] Furthermore, he argues:

    “Whenever a business has disregarded the limitation of economic performance and has assumed social responsibilities it could not support economically, it has soon gotten into trouble.”[2]

    This would seem to put Drucker squarely in the “profits above all” column – a stance, it is worth noting, that some not-so-unfamous economists have opted to take. This includes Nobel Memorial Prize winner Milton Friedman, who once famously argued that “the social responsibility of business is to increase profits.”[3] Money, in other words, should come above all else.

    But Drucker doesn’t seem quite so sure. Consider this next passage from that same collection of his writings:

    “One is responsible for one’s impacts, whether they are intended or not. This is the first rule. There is no doubt regarding management’s responsibility for the social impacts of its organization. They are management’s business.”[4]

    Great – I couldn’t agree more. Businesses should be held accountable for their societal impacts. The problem for Mr. Drucker, however, is that taking responsibility for one’s “social impacts,” as he insists in this second statement, is to assume “social responsibilities” of the sort he warns against in the first. And so this, as I pointed out in that previous post, is paradox. What he argues for in one statement, he argues against in the other.

    Drucker himself appears to be aware of the dilemma here, at least on some level. And yet faced with this obvious contradiction, in the end he only seems capable of equivocating – and unconvincingly at that:

    “Management must resist responsibility for a social problem that would compromise or impair the performance capacity of its business…but then, if the problem is a real one, it better think through and offer an alternative approach. If the problem is serious, something will have to be done about it.”[5]

    Just what a “serious” problem might be, however, or what might constitute “having done something about it,” is not then directly addressed. Apparently Drucker feels these are things that a manager needs to figure out for him- or herself.

    So what do we really know about managing..?

    The real-world ramifications of “Drucker’s dilemma” are no doubt obvious to you.

    If managers are to be left to their own devices when it comes to choosing between profits and ethical considerations (or worse, feel they have free license to pursue the former), it should come as no surprise that some choose profits—especially in the short-term—over all else. Consider the housing/subprime mortgage crisis of 2008, for instance, or any one of the following, more recent examples:

    • For a time, Amazon appears to have determined that it was cheaper to hire private ambulances to transport workers succumbing to heat exhaustion to local hospitals, as opposed to installing air-conditioning in their warehouses.[6]
    • VW apparently decided somewhere along the line that it was okay to lie to customers about how “green” their new diesel cars are just to make a buck (or euro) or two.[7]
    • At least for the moment, the rider-sharing company Uber seems to have opted for less rigorous (that is, less expensive) screening standards for its drivers than other commercial cab companies, despite the increased risk that might pose for their passengers.[8]
    • And in my own experience, I have seen managers and CEOs struggle with whether to replace outdated, and therefore potentially unsafe equipment in light of the expense, or whether to dispose of hazardous waste improperly, and therefore far more cheaply. (I just wish I could assure you that in both cases Friedman’s argument hadn’t ruled the day.)

    To my own mind then, of all the contradictions I’ve come across (and I’ve come across a lot) this particular paradox—the one that pits profits against ethics—is the one that I personally find most troubling. And not just because it explains why some managers and CEOs occasionally succumb to unsavory (or illegal) business practices.

    No, I see it as an indictment of management theory, or management science—or whatever you want to call it—on a far broader scale.

    How is it that a management expert like Peter Drucker is unable to rectify the single most important precept of capitalism (the maximization of profit) with a business’ obligation to ensure the safety and well-being of its workers, the community, and society as a whole? Nothing, to my mind, would seem to be as fundamental, or as critical, to any supposed theory of management.

    Now in Drucker’s defense, he is not the only one to have struggled with this particular paradox. But he is to whom the Economist magazine once referred as “the most important management thinker of the past century.”[9]

    And if the great Peter Drucker was unable to unravel it..? Well then, perhaps we should ask ourselves this:

    How much is it that we really understand about good management, and its practice, at all?


    [1] Drucker, Peter. 2005. The Essential Drucker (First Collins Business Edition), New York, p. 59.

    [2] Ibid., p. 59.

    [3] Friedman, Milton. “The social responsibility of a business is to increase its profits.” New York Times Magazine, September 13, 1970.

    [4] Drucker, op. cit., p. 52.

    [5] Ibid. p. 62.

    [6] (a) Soper, Spencer. “Workers complain about Amazon warehouse jobs.” The Seattle Times, Sept. 24, 2011. http://www.seattletimes.com/business/workers-complain-about-amazon-warehouse-jobs/. Retrieved Feb. 26, 2016. (b) Freidel, Deborah. Review of “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the age of Amazon,” London Review of Books, December, 2013, p. 17-19. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n23/deborah-friedell/kill-your-own-business. Retrieved Feb. 26, 2016.

    [7] Hakim, Danny. “VW Admits Cheating in US, but Says Its Practices Were Legal in Europe.” The New York Times, January 22, 2016, p. B1. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/22/business/international/vw-admits-cheating-in-the-us-but-not-in-europe.html?_r=0. Retrieved Feb. 26, 2016.

    [8] Kendall, Marisa. “Uber responds after driver charged in Michigan shooting,” The San Jose Mercury News, February 22, 2016.   http://www.mercurynews.com/drive/ci_29548465/uber-responds-michigan-shooting. Retrieved Feb. 26, 2016.

    [9] The Economist, 2005, November 19: 71-73. http://www.economist.com/node/5165460. Retrieved Feb. 26, 2016.


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  • February 26, 2016

    < 1 minute read


    On management advice books…

    Feb 26, 2016




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