Is It All Hooey?

The best management theory might simply be to take your own advice.

The next time a potential contractor tells you his services will result in a win-win for your agency and himself-or worse, a win-win-win (don't forget the taxpayer!)-I dare you to say, "Now you've convinced me. Up until you said that, I thought this was going to be a lose-lose situation."

The next time a consultant emphasizes the importance of top-level buy-in, I dare you to vociferously thank her for that pearl of wisdom. Say, "There I was, about to do this, even though my agency head told me not to."

Matthew Stewart, a former management consultant, argues in the June issue of The Atlantic (one of Government Executive's sister publications) that management advice and theory is pretty much a bunch of baloney. Every federal manager who's sat through a meeting playing buzzword bingo (scoring when someone mentions "best practice" or "value-added" or "scalable solution") would probably agree that the management-advice emperor often has no clothes.

Stewart's review of management theory charts the history of MBA-style science from the 1899 scientific management theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor through the 1920s workplace experiments of Elton Mayo to the 1980s theories of Rosabeth Moss Kanter to the 1990s developments of learning organizations and "intrapreneuring." "If it's reminiscent of the kind of toothless wisdom offered in self-help literature, that's because management theory is mostly a subgenre of self-help," Stewart writes. "Which isn't to say it's completely useless. But just as most people are able to lead fulfilling lives without consulting Deepak Chopra, most managers can probably spare themselves an education in management theory."

Stewart explains that he has a doctorate in 19th century German philosophy. To him, management theory is really about philosophy-about the morals and values that managers employ when considering the well-being of their workers and the business goals of their organizations. But current management theory consists of "unverifiable propositions" and "cryptic anecdotes," is not held accountable, and produces "an inordinate number of catastrophically bad writers," he says.

Given his background in philosophy, Stewart naturally sees some salvation for management theory in the work of other philosophers. Perhaps his most useful observation is the contribution of Descartes to modern thinking. Descartes wrote clearly and he showed, Stewart says, that "knowledge, by its nature, is intelligible, not obscure."

Great managers seem to know instinctively that good leadership doesn't mean building a complex architecture of management theory to guide them and their employees, but rather distilling their goals into simple, clear, understandable methods and plans. One federal executive said she sees her job as giving her employees goals, making sure they have the tools to meet those goals, monitoring progress and providing feedback on achieving their goals.

There are a lot of ways to do those four things. Every manager seems to have a method. Every consultant has a different theory of how to do them. Every contractor has a different service or product for those activities. For more than a century, management theorists have been trying to determine the best ways for managers to do their jobs.

In the end, the philosophers probably don't have better ideas either. Stewart suggests that management is a job that is learned by doing. So it's probably true that the best management thinking a manager can draw upon is his or her own.

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