The Future of Management

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By Gary Hamel with Bill Breen
Harvard Business School Press, 2007, 288 pages

“To tackle a systemic problem, you need to understand its deep roots” is one of the many rules, ingredients, ideas, lessons, and “building blocks” contained in the new book by Gary Hamel, visiting professor of strategic and international management at the London Business School. That’s excellent advice, but unfortunately, in The Future of Management, Hamel and professional writer Bill Breen don’t take it. The book is a welter of unexplored biological metaphors (fitness landscapes, managerial DNA, genomes, ecosystems); examples of management innovation from the usual suspects (Google, Whole Foods, Semco, General Electric, Procter & Gamble); and multiple lists of the aforementioned rules, ingredients, ideas, and so forth.

Hamel calls on established organizations to dramatically accelerate the pace of strategic renewal, to make innovation everyone’s job, and to create engaging workplaces that bring out the best in people. So far, so good; one can agree with these ends, even if they are described in the book bombastically as “meaty and righteous,” which is presumably a riff of some kind on the “big, hairy, audacious” goals of Jerry Porras and Jim Collins. The author’s concern, however, is that organizations today are governed by management principles developed in the 19th and 20th centuries that are wholly inappropriate for today’s challenges of “whiplash change…seditious competitors…omnipotent customers….” He sees these principles as a “maturing technology” urgently in need of reinvention, just as our consumer products have been reinvented.

It’s at this stage that many readers will begin to wonder whether we don’t already have too many management principles, more than a few of them contradictory, and whether the real problem is determining how to employ them in very different contexts — contexts that often place significant constraints on management action. It’s here that well-developed organic analogies should come to our aid, helping us to understand these contexts and their constraints. Regrettably, Hamel too often blames senior executives for their failure to act: They are variously described as being indifferent, in denial, lazy, myopic, and convention-loving.

Any ecological or evolutionary metaphor used to describe organizations inevitably raises the questions, Is an organization more like a tree or more like a forest? Is it an individual or a population? The answer matters, because in nature populations can change and evolve, but individuals cannot. Principles can help us frame these questions, but they can’t answer them — that’s an empirical matter. Some organizations, like General Electric and P&G, are like forests, complex ecosystems capable of continual renewal; others (such as integrated steel mills and oil refineries) are more like trees, mono­cultures vulnerable to age and technological change. Hamel dismisses this issue in an endnote. It’s a mistake, he writes, to view a large company as a single organism: “If large companies often appear…like unitary, non-adaptable organisms, it’s only because managers have failed to nurture and exploit the potential for variety that exists inside every large organization.” Perhaps — there’s always room for improvement, but it’s not unlimited, and the nature of those limits needs exploring. It’s been shown repeatedly that markets are much more adaptable than organizations, so why champion adaptability at the organizational level so ardently? Indeed, one of the questions the author counsels the reader to ask about strongly held beliefs is, How does this belief serve the interest of its adherents? It’s a mean-spirited response, but could it be that the author emphasizes large companies because they hire consultants, whereas markets don’t?

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