b-school, Business, Management, MBA, Thoughts

Beware of management gurus (and business cases)

Yesterday, browsing the blogosphere, I encountered a newly-born blog by Michael Young with a post called Don’t Waste Your Time with Guy Kawasaki. It’s funny because the guy talks about entrepreneurship books and how someone with a bright past or a nice curriculum can cash on it with a book with no content. Well, nothing surprising in the 4Ps world that we live in (Product, Pricing, Placement and Promotion).

This is something I’ve thinking about lately, about management knowledge, the learning process, reflection, wisdom and the ways to get it. So I wanted to make my point too.

But let’s not pick on Guy Kawasaki. Let’s go to the top of the gurus’ league. Let’s talk of Tom Peters or Gary Hamel. We already know that these guys sell lots of books at airports. So what?

These guys are considered gurus. And, what is a guru? Somebody that can give you a lot of advice, very expensive advice.

But he’s not expected to lower himself and explain the whys. And you’re not expected to ask them to him either, after all he’s a guru. A guru will fix your problems (or at least be expected to).

A guru makes slogans or sound sentences that contain the essence of management. Do not dare to doubt them. There are different kinds of content that a guru can generate:

  • Platitudes: this kind of sentences that you would never dare to oppose. For example “listen to your customers”. Is there a way anyone could dare say that customer shouldn’t be listened to? Of course not. We can all agree on that. But then, where’s the real content to it? Yes, right, it’s always good to be remained that we should listen to our customers, but we already knew! It’s nice to see so many people getting rich selling common sense, but don’t expect them to think for you!
  • Myths: about the great companies in history. This company has lasted so many years it must have something. You’re right. But, ex post analysis are so easy… what about saying which ones will last and which ones won’t before they have already lasted or died? Huh, that sounds more difficult and compromising. There was some book about 40-something excellent companies from Peters. Guess what? Some years later they were no longer excellent at all.
  • Truisms are those sentences that have no possible discussion. They are basically true, regardless of what they say and contain. So, when you encounter a truism, you know you have to skip to the next sentence. Why are they trying to sell things that do not even belong to the common sense but simply have no information? “customers are important”, of course, just like “you have to pay your employees” (I don’t mean in a better way, or intrinsic/extrinsic way, I mean you have to give something in return for their work, that they are not slaves). Both are truisms. Of course a company can forget about the customer or about paying its employees, but where’s the content, the reflection on that? What is there to learn that you already didn’t know?
  • Erroneous inferences: they seek some qualities to a company (truisms, platitudes and tautologies) and then identify those as cause for success. And then they write a book about the last theory for success. How do they know? From a bunch of cases? Please. To infer that is the cause for success, and no other, there would have to be a direct correlation between cause and effect, and a negative correlation with no effect. In other words: prove to me that when those causes are present the companies do succeed, and when they are not, the companies do fail. Or at least prove there’s a difference on probabilities. But don’t expect to prove anything with a few cases. That’s not the scientific method! And that doesn’t work!
  • And finally, tautologies, one of the most stupid situations I’ve encountered. The French say that there are no poisons; it’s just a matter of dosage. That is true for tautologies too. When a guru says you have, for instance, “to listen to your people”, but at the same time tells you that “sometimes taking the decision is much more important than deciding for the best one” (just the first two thoughts that occurred to me) they are not saying to stop everything to listen to employees or to decide everything quickly. They are saying there’s a right amount of communication with your employees, and a reasonable time for taking decisions. Those we already knew from platitudes and truisms. The tautology comes when we ask, which is the right time? Too much waiting is bad for the company. Right. But again, what is too much? Too much is the quantity that is bad for the company. Excuse me? So you’re telling me that what is bad for me is bad for me?

What can we do about it? It’s good to study business cases because a manager can always increase his/her experience, analytic abilities, reasoning capabilities, understanding of different situations… but don’t try to extract laws there. Don’t search for scientific evidence. If you do you’re missing the point. There are also fine and serious writers out there (I was writing about Mintzberg some posts ago) that are not trying to sell you anything but helping you reflect.

And whatever you read, don’t try to find universal laws, there is no evidence, just ideas.

And always keep a critical attitude. Think of Galileo, think of science. Know thyself. And grow.

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3 thoughts on “Beware of management gurus (and business cases)

  1. Nice post! I think it’s quite ironic that these gurus tout their books as a “must-read” for anyone going into business/starting a company, yet many (if not most) of the famous tech companies (at least according to Founders at Work) were built on the backs of Nike’s slogan: “Just do it.”

    All the platitude, truisms, and tautologies in the world can’t possibly substitute for getting your hands dirty. Perhaps they are complementary, but arguably your time would have been better spent just cutting to the chase.

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