Management Without Principles

A Mechanical Brain

Management “principles” have been a prominent feature of the field ever since the 1950s, when a concerted attempt was made to put management on the path to becoming a social science. With economics as their guide and physics as the ultimate goal, management scientists set about looking for generic, context-free principles that could be applied in every situation. Many of the early textbooks were entitled The Principles of Management and enumerated activities like planning, organizing, staffing, directing, coordinating, reporting and budgeting, or POSDCORB, to give it its unlovely acronym.

Management texts and titles have changed a bit since then but management principles are still alive and well, although they are often called something else. Take a recent book I reviewed for example. The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen reports on the work they have done to identify innovation “skills”. These are associating (a thinking skill), questioning, observing, networking and experimenting (behavioural skills). Although the metaphor they use is “DNA”, the authors hasten to add that these skills can be learned.

Within a few weeks these “skills” were appearing on the web as “Innovation Discovery Principles” under headings like “Innovation can be taught”. This is, of course, not true. The skills are competencies that innovative companies have developed over time. Each one undoubtedly developed these skills in a different way. The skills tell us why the companies are innovative, not how they got that way. These competencies of high-performance organizations are, at best, goals – desirable  outcomes – for poorly-performing ones.

A golfer shows good form

The completion of another thrilling Masters golf tournament over the weekend reminds one of a useful analogy. All top-performing golfers exhibit the same swing “principles” or skills. They have straight left arms (for right-handed golfers), steady heads, weight transfer etc. Teaching these principles to a novice, even if he can recite them by heart, will not make him a professional golfer. These are outcomes not inputs. The novice has to be able to perform repeatedly in real time, which means he has to come to terms with his own body, physical and mental skills, modes of learning, motivation, time available for practice and play, and so on. Only once they achieve competence will we be able to admire their straight left arms, steady heads etc.

At the root of the problem with management principles is the assumption of a logical, Cartesian mind that thinks before it acts. It thinks by applying generic, context-free principles to concrete situations. But in the case of practices, like management (and golf) this does not work. Practices can be developed only through perfect practice – practice with timely, specific, visceral feedback. Contexts matter and every organization, like every golfer, starts in a different situation, with a different history. Everyone has to find their own “swing”.

To be fair to Dyer, Gregersen and Christiensen, they do note that innovative organizations usually act differently in order to think differently. This activity, they suggest, often has its roots in an individual entrepreneur’s profound dissatisfaction with the status quo, which is likely the result of early life experiences. So perhaps the first thing a would-be-innovative company has to do is find one of those! The authors then go on to use a people, processes, philosophies framework: firms should hire innovative people, put processes in place to support them and embrace some guiding philosophies. The most important in this latter category is to “make it clear that innovation is everyone’s job”. Unfortunately the term “philosophy”, used in this way, does not mean a completely different worldview. It is indistinguishable from a “principle”! And the phrase “make it clear” is an achievement, a desirable outcome. Achievement verbs like “align”, “ensure”, “deploy” and so on, sound like action but the advice they convey is really no more useful than the investment “principle” to “buy low and sell high”!

In The New Ecology of Leadership I try to avoid principles and so-called achievement verbs as much as possible. The philosophy in the book does demand a different worldview. It requires one to modify the notion of Cartesian minds and place them in the context of a species that is ecologically rational. The goal of the book is not to convey knowledge but to help people make meaning – for themselves and for others – to ask better questions of reality and to tell better stories. The result, I hope, will be management without principles.

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