Posted: 10:15 a.m. Friday, May 10, 2013
By Geoffrey James
These seven timeless but useless strategies pop up with annoying regularity.
In some companies it's like clockwork. Every couple of years or so, somebody in the executive suite decides that what's needed to make the organization really productive is a new approach to managing people.
Contrary to what you might think, management fads aren't fads because they're something new. Quite the contrary, what makes them fads is that companies glom onto these decades-old ideas as panaceas... one after the other after the other.
Here's how to ensure that you can still get work done and build your career, even when your company falls under the spell.
Fad 1. Best Practices
For decades, management pundits have insisted it's possible to become successful by imitating the strategies and tactics of existing firms that are already successful. There's only one problem with this strategy: it doesn't work.
The most highly successful companies--Apple, Coke, IBM, P&G, etc.--tend to be one-of-a-kind. The strategies that work (or worked) for them aren't likely to work in a different industry or for a smaller firm.
What's worse, the "successful" firms featured in such books are often past their prime anyway. The seminal "best practices" book In Search of Excellence is a case in point. Most of the companies featured in the book did terribly after the book came out.
Fad 2. Six Sigma
Six Sigma is more like a cartoon cult than a real attempt to improve things. It involves awarding people different colored "belts" (like in a karate class) based upon their expertise in the Six Sigma methodology.
The result is a hierarchy of "belted" experts who run around the company pretending that they know how to do other people's work better than the people who actually do the work. Endless meetings ensue, with little or no effect.
Companies that implement Six Sigma typically do worse than their competitors and it's not hard to see why. What do you expect from potbellied managers running around with little colored belts like a Bruce Lee movie on Bizarro world?
Fad 3. Business Process Reengineering
The theory of BRP makes sense: 1) set up cross-functional teams in order to re-engineer separate functional tasks into complete cross-functional processes, 2) integrate and rationalize a wide number of business functions, 3) Ooops.
Gee, did I say that the theory of BRP makes sense? My bad. I meant to say that the theory is pure bullsh*t dressed in a tutu.
Changing the basic processes of a corporation while those processes are taking place is exactly like trying to redesign and retool an automobile while you're driving down the highway. That's why "reengineering" turned into a euphemism for "layoffs."
Fad 4. Matrix Management
The idea here is that people with similar skills should be "pooled" for work assignments. For example, the engineers should report to an engineering manager, but also report to a project manager while they're working on that project.
The result is predictable: an endless, debilitating turf war, where each manager fights to be considered the "real" manager, by finding extra hoops to jump through and extra rocks to fetch, in order to prove that they're the ones who are really in charge.
Because the system creates more managers, the organization quickly becomes top heavy. Management becomes completely consumed in arguments over who will do what and when.
Fad 5. Management by Consensus
Consensus management is usually seen as an alternative to "top-down" decision making common inside hierarchical organizations. In theory, important decisions are to be made with the agreement of everybody in the group.
Since everybody has a say in the decision, anybody can effectively veto any decision. As a result, only decisions that are completely innocuous and support the status quo are ever made. Difficult decisions--ones that might ruffle feathers--tend to get shunted aside.
When tough decisions are made, they're subject to what's called "the Abilene paradox," where a group will unanimously agree on a course of action that no individual member of the group desires because no one is willing to go against the perceived will of the group.
Fad 6. Core Competence
It sounds like good advice: Focus on the single thing that your firm does better than anyone else. That will make your strategy difficult for competitors to imitate and keep your organization from wasting time doing things that they're lousy at doing.
Unfortunately, organizations, like the people inside them, tend to be as self aware as a turnip. As a result, they seldom know what they're really good at and often believe they're wonderful in areas that, in fact, they're startlingly mediocre.
More importantly, core competence keeps a company locked into doing what it was successful at doing in the past, thereby making it more difficult to adapt to changing circumstances.
Fad 7. Management By Objective
With MBO, you define objectives within an organization so that management and employees agree to the objectives. Then you compare the employee's actual performance with the agreed-upon objectives.
On the surface, there's nothing wrong with this idea. However, it becomes a fad when people turn what should be a fairly simple exercise into a paperwork nightmare. In this case, the process of planning and evaluating work takes more effort than the work itself.
What's worse, the explicit laying out of objectives--and basing compensation on them--makes it difficult for organizations and individuals to change gears when something unexpected happens.
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