Build or burn?

Theories, theories everywhere

What’s your theory of management?  I absorb each new theory with enthusiasm hoping this will be ‘The One’. While each brings a fresh and valuable insight, I know I’ll retain only a vague concept and a catchy title, such as ‘black swan’ or ‘tipping point’.

At business school I learned about the ‘Theory X’ manager, the person who gets things done but the team are unhappy, and the ‘Theory Y’ managers, where everyone gets to express themselves but the project ends in chaos.  When I studied that theory I felt instinctively, as I imagine all young people do, that I was Theory Y.  Then came my first management job.  I was managing a financial accounts department where for some reason everyone didn’t share my enthusiasm for new initiatives.  And when they expressed themselves, it was usually to moan about their other colleagues.  That team needed a Theory X manager.   They were a group who just wanted to ‘come to work, and do a job’.  They had been under-managed for some time and had developed a bit of a sour character.  They needed someone to give them crystal-clear guidelines of the standards expected of them, and then to enforce them, and be seen to enforce them, fairly.  The parenting and dog training manuals call this ‘giving boundaries’.  Poor souls.  I was promoted after six months and was glad to leave.  I learned a lot because I made more mistakes in those six months than I’ve made in jobs where I’ve been in post much longer.  Chief lesson?  If someone tells you they are leaving, never, NEVER, try to persuade them to stay.

You can date a person from their management fads.  When I was studying management, Japanese ‘just in time’ management – limited stock, empowering the shopfloor and unrelenting focus on quality – was a big thing.  And a good thing too because, growing up, I recall rusting cars and frequent repairs to the family telly.  That theory morphed through Total Quality Management to find it’s ultimate expression in Six Sigma.  When it left the factory and entered administrative centres with people styling themselves, without irony, as six sigma black belts, we’d probably sucked the theory dry.  And when it detoured into Quality Assurance and ISO9001, and became a magnet for obscure paperwork such as Standard Operating Procedures, I think we’d left the original Japanese philosophy way behind.

Of course, it’s the skill of the person implementing the theory that counts.  Jack Welsh is famous for setting a ferociously high standard of performance at GE, which involved routinely getting rid of the lowest quartile of performers (a recruitment consultant’s dream client).  But Jack Welsh had the skill to carry this off.  I once worked in a company which tried to implement a similar policy when their senior and middle management didn’t have Jack Welsh’s skills.  The result wasn’t pretty.  And I recall a story from an electrician in a Diageo bottling plant where a new production manager had gathered all the maintenance engineers to a meeting where he explained he wanted them to come up with ideas for improving production.  After a period of stony silence, someone asked if, after coming up with new ideas for production, would he earn the same salary as the production manager?  This story is uncomfortably close to my own experiences in that first management job.

My own period of evangelism was for business process re-engineering.  I was once part of a corporate improvement project where the key outcome, a merger of two departments, came when I suggested that the combined process be carried out in a single department.  (In fact it was my wife’s idea.  She worked in one of those departments and kept talking about the conflicts).  I was a real believer, convinced I’d found a dominant  management theory that would guide future action.  Around the same time, Enterprise Resource Planning – software such as SAP and Oracle that integrates all the functions of the organisation – started to work well, and the concept of process re-engineering was appropriated by the IT industry.  It became less about re-engineering your processes for a purpose such as better customer service, and more about re-engineering your local practices to fit around the software.

Then there was the Internet, and all bets were off.   But then they were back on again.  And that, I suppose, is my point.  Management theories go through a life cycle but they all eventually just fade to become part of the background radiation of life as a manager.  Corporate life is no different from our personal lives: constantly changing, full of suffering and slightly absurd. There is no theory that can dominate for long in such an environment. We just have to work it out for ourselves.  We know it, but who’s got the time?  Meanwhile those management theories are so attractive because they offer spiritual solutions: all you need to do is believe, and it will all be all right.

Advice?  Management is like a toolbox.  You should aim to be skilled in the use of as many tools as possible.  That way you’ll be able to select the right tool for the situation you find yourself in.  If I was back in that first management job, I’d be a Theory X manager, even though, deep down, I’m a bit of a softie.

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