The autumn 2015 edition of Professional Manager contains a great article by Adrian Furnham, entitled “Write a business bestseller”. In it he identifies 11 essential ingredients of what he describes as “a management blockbuster”.
Whilst setting out this recipe for success in the literary world, he neatly exposes the gaps between the simplistic view of organization that such books typically present and the complex reality that managers experience day in, day out. He does this so subtly, though, that I can see many readers eagerly following his ‘advice’ in pursuit of their “dream of being a management guru”.
In essence, Furnham cleverly advances the same argument that I was trying to make more matter-of-factly in my recent post entitled, “10 examples of language that denies the real-world complexity of organization and management”. On the face of it, he is offering some advice to budding authors. In actuality he is deriding the naïve ‘if you do this, you’ll get that’ prescriptions that prevent more meaningful engagement with the dynamics of organization and a more practical understanding of management practice.
To illustrate the point, here are my not-so-blockbuster-like statements in response to each of the “essentials” that Furnham sets out in the article:
- Simplicity: Organization is messy and complex (i.e. “wiggly”). There are no simple cure-all concepts, tools, and techniques that will ensure success.
- Changeability: People’s willingness and ability to change is idiosyncratic, situationally contingent, andunpredictable. There is not “one best way” to manage change. Indeed, it’s not possible to “manage” change at all, in the sense that this is usually understood.
- The individual is key: Organization arises in the ongoing patterning of interactions between people. What happens is not determined by individuals acting autonomously. Nor, for that matter, is it governed by an imaginary “system” that can act in some way independently of people. It is the interactions of interdependent people that are key.
- Managerial control: By virtue of their formal position, managers can ‘command’ certain things to happen. That is, they are in control in the sense of being formally in charge. At the same time, they are not in control of the ways in which people perceive, interpret, evaluate, and act upon those commands. Nor can they control how other people act. This means that they are not in control – and cannot be in control - of what actually happens in practice.
- Steps and principles: There is no simple, stepwise formula that will ensure success. A more accurate and helpful way to describe what all managers do in practice is to recognize that they “muddle through”. This means that they act forwards into a continuously emerging and unknowable future, whilst hopefully striving to do so with purpose, courage, and skill.
- Universality: Context is critical – whatever happens does so at a particular time, in a particular situation, and between particular people, etc. This means that it might not work at another time, in another situation, and between other people. Almost certainly it won’t work in the same way or deliver the same outcomes.
- Short-termism: It’s impossible to guarantee that a particular action will deliver immediate benefits. Some will. Some won’t. It’s a matter of practical judgement as to which course to pursue – and, by definition, judgement is fallible.
- Success stories: You can’t put an organization in a test tube. It’s not possible to relate what are perceived to be successful outcomes to particular interventions – even after the event. Evidence as to the validity, usefulness, and value of particular actions arises in the midst of people’s current practice. This means both reflecting on their own individual and collective experience, and translating - not transferring(!) - insights from other people’s practice into their own context.
- Self-confirmation: Most managers continue to be recruited, developed, measured, recognized, rewarded, promoted, vilified, and removed in line with processes that are rooted in assumptions of scientific rationality, predictability, and control. In response, the ways in which managers account formally for their actions and emerging events tends to bear little relationship to what they actually find themselves and others doing in practice. Managing with purpose, courage, and skill includes confronting these misconceptions, rather than colluding with them.
- Unitary perspective: All interactions are partial, power-related, and political. These always reflect differing – and potentially competing - interpretations, interests, ideologies, and identities. This means that self-contradictory states, such as co-operation and competition, compliance and confrontation, continuity and change, always co-exist as natural dynamics of organization. That’s life!
- Happy ever afters: Performance – good and bad - arises from the widespread interplay of myriad local interactions. Nobody can control what emerges, or guarantee that a particular approach will result in “And they all lived happily ever after” outcomes.
Furnham concludes the article with the following observation, which leaves little doubt as to his real point:
“The dilemma for the would-be writer is not literary but ethical… Honest, practical books that don’t oversimplify or promise the earth make only modest earnings.”
Hopefully managers will eventually tire of the simple messages and one-size-fits-all 'solutions' that tend to dominate the bestseller bookshelves and look instead for something that more closely reflects their everyday lived reality.
(1) Contact details for individual subscriptions to Professional Manager can be found here.