Is Management Due for a Renaissance?

Late last week this blog was published in the Harvard Business Review blog network, where it is attracting a good deal of interest and comment. It is part of a series by speakers participating in the Global Drucker Forum November 13-14 in Vienna:

Every now and then, a thinker calls for a renaissance in some field of work – a rebirth, or return to classic roots after a period of straying from them. Is management – not yet a very old discipline – due for one? When Richard Straub, President of the Peter Drucker Society of Europe, recently declared so, it got me thinking by analogy about how one might come to pass.


Renaissance Perspective

The first Renaissance was of course the sweeping cultural movement that began in 14th century Florence and, aided by the newly invented printing press, spread throughout Europe. It lasted into the 17th Century, when it was succeeded by the European Enlightenment. The causes of the movement are complex and much debated. During the long decline of the Roman Empire, Italy experienced a steady influx of Greek scholars and texts. Their appearance sparked a new interest in classical writings. At the same time there was growing criticism of the sterile scholasticism of the medieval universities, which had focused on defending dogma with rigorous conceptual analysis and vigorous argument. Instead, there was a new focus on nature and experience and what it meant to be human. Some say that the Black Death, which hit Italy particularly badly in the mid-14th century, catalyzed this concern with humanism. Instead of being preoccupied with the afterlife, people turned their attention to life on earth. Thus the recovery of ancient wisdom was accompanied by the pursuit of new perspectives (quite literally, in the case of painting) that would render a more realistic picture of the human condition.

We could even say that the subject of management was touched by that first Renaissance. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) was one of the first writers to give us an unvarnished perspective of how things really are in powerful enterprises, rather than how we would like them to be.

What would a second Renaissance look like in management today? The field as we know it was born as a set of practices for organizing work that took hold in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was radically reformed in the 1950s along what were then conceived to be scientific lines. Although this reform had valuable benefits at the time, someone calling for a second Renaissance might argue that in the decades since then it has degenerated into a new scholasticism, dominated by the sterile dogmas of neoclassical economics. In particular, the economic focus on the individual and instrumental rationality has led to a preoccupation with methods and means, almost to the exclusion of aims and ends. Coupled with mechanical models, this has resulted in an engineering management mindset, in which people are inevitably seen as instruments for another’s purpose, rather than as ends in themselves. The effect of this has been the widespread disengagement of people from work, and the apparent inability of large, successful organizations to innovate.

A second Renaissance would call for a new approach to learning – a humanistic return to experience, practice, and the cultivation of judgment and practical wisdom in managers. Just as was the case with its predecessor, this renaissance would involve a blend of ancient wisdom and new perspectives.

The “scientific model” of management, as Warren Bennis and Jim O’Toole called it (in their 2005HBR article “How The Business Schools Lost Their Way”), emphasized conceptual knowledge and tools and techniques – what Greek philosophers would have called episteme and techne. It was assumed that organizations could be studied by detached “objective” observers and that management science could be “values-free” – just like the natural sciences. More generally this scientific model has resulted in a misanthropic concept of capitalism that excludes purpose and meaning from its concerns.

A second Renaissance would call for a recovery of the concept of practical wisdom; of what Aristotle called phronesisPhronesis is prudence, the context-dependent, practical common sense needed when we have to make judgments about what is right and wrong – “what is good or bad for man”, as Aristotle put it. From this perspective a “phronetic” discipline like management can never be “values-free”; all management decisions have ethical implications because they deal with people. And people can be passionate participants as well as (occasionally) detached observers; it’s “both…and”, not “either/or”.

We have learned a lot about the nature of humankind since the 1950s. In his best-selling book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt likens the human mind to a rider (reason) on an elephant (intuition). Back in the 1950s we thought that the rider was in charge, or ought to be. Evidence is accumulating from several fields that this view is wrong; the elephant is in charge and the rider is a much better rationalizer in hindsight than a reasoner in prospect. It seems that, with our limited conscious mental capacity, our minds have evolved to make fast “good enough” decisions under pressure of time and conditions of uncertainty. Sometimes, especially in evolutionarily unfamiliar contexts, these intuitions play us false, but most of the time they work just fine and we couldn’t live without them.

The challenge is not to replace intuition with reason as the management reformers of the 1950s had hoped, but to develop new understandings of how intuition and reason can work together, especially in the service of creativity and innovation. Once again, it’s “both…and”, not “either/or”.

Believers in the scientific model of management have resisted this view by adopting a “glass half-empty” attitude toward our cognitive powers under the pejorative heading of “heuristics and biases”. As a result, the new findings from the cognitive sciences have not changed our concept of human nature but are being used as springboards for further manipulations. A humanistic second Renaissance would resist this purely instrumental approach by calling for a “glass half-full” attitude toward our mental abilities. It would harness the liberal arts to study the new evidence for its implications for human nature and creativity and what it tells us about how people grow and become engaged with the world. It would recognize that we are social creatures with minds that are embodied, not just “embrained,” and that we can “think” about the world in just as many ways as we can experience it. Our resulting capacity for analogical thought is the key to creativity.

Like the first Renaissance, the great transformation people are increasingly calling for in management must be fundamentally philosophical. It won’t follow from the adoption of new principles and precepts, rules and tools, although these will surely be invented. Rather it begins with a new synthesis, a new integration of knowledge that already exists but currently lies scattered and incoherent.


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