Few managers and consultants appear willing to contemplate the thought that they might not be able to predict and control outcomes in their organizations. Or to pinpoint the causes of particular events. But the inability to do so is an unavoidable dynamic of people in interaction. It is not something that only happens now and again. Or only in some (assumed to be poorly managed) organizations and not in others. It happens all of the time and in all organizations. Despite this, conventional management ‘wisdom’ continues to embrace and promote principles and practices that assume the opposite.
As an example, I recently took part in an on-line discussion about how best to measure the return on investment (ROI) of development interventions. I found it fascinating – and at the same time somewhat depressing - how deeply embedded and taken for granted is the belief that doing this is unproblematic. It is - or so it would seem from the various contributions - an essential and readily achievable aspect of good management and consulting practice.
For most, it would appear simply to be a matter of the client's choice, coupled with a suitable methodology and the consultant’s (or coach’s/trainer’s) will to achieve it:
- One commentator declared confidently that he can "measure anything".
- Another sang the praises of a particular ‘tool’ that she had used to assess the value of coaching. Interestingly, whilst claiming that this could also be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the coach, she commented that "this is a subjective and personal relationship” which is “full of grey areas”. Presumably such relationships differ, in some yet-to-be-explained way, from the other relationships and interactions that comprise everyday organizational life.
- A third respondent offered striking examples of 'returns' that had been claimed (and presumably accepted) for particular coaching assignments. As she conceded though - almost as an afterthought -these 'returns' assume that "nothing else is happening to that individual at the same time as the coaching programme, which might account for the improvement in performance." Quite. It also assumes that the rest of the world stood still while the client managers delivered the aforesaid benefits, which arose as a sole result of their "improved performance".
I – not unusually – was a lone voice in suggesting that it might not be quite as simple as others were suggesting. Or, to be more precise, that it wasn’t doable at all!