Monday, July 10, 2006


A Management Book Actually Gets It Right!

On the recommendation of MBB, I just finished Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense, by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton (Harvard Business School Press, 2006). It’s an attempt to apply evidence-based analysis to management theories. (It's following in the footsteps of 'evidence-based medicine' and sabermetrics.)

As a critique of management theories, it’s surprisingly readable and cogent. I may work up a more thoughtful response after I've had time to think it through, but there’s a passage that described my life so perfectly that I literally laughed out loud:

[W]e overattribute actions and consequences to individuals rather than to the constraints under which they operate…This is where an organization hires one apparently brilliant person after another, and then places them in the same badly designed jobs in the same badly designed system. Each new incumbent seems smart and savvy until they start the job, and in a flash they start acting stupid. We first noticed this syndrome by watching friends who took jobs as deans and associate deans in business schools. These jobs come with much responsibility but little authority and few resources. Demands from students, faculty, staff, university administrators, companies, and alumni are intense, unrealistic, and in conflict. These jobs are hard, perhaps impossible, to do well. But that doesn’t stop virtually every major constituency from focusing attention on the incumbent’s personality and skills rather than the impossibility of doing the job. To most observers, it seems like every ounce of intelligence, common sense, and skill is sucked out of people the minute they become academic administrators. Much the same thing happened at NASA, where the Columbia Accident Investigation Board was dismayed to see that, although most of the people had been changed, the same system produced the same mistakes seen 17 years earlier – it was a system that made it difficult for smart people to do smart things. (p. 102)

So at least I’m in good company. Deans, and the people who blew up two shuttles.

The point of their analysis was that when smart people keep falling flat in the same way, the problem usually isn’t the people; it’s the system. Very few people ever really look at it that way, since people are visible and systems aren’t (or aren’t easily), and blaming is easier than thinking.

Astute readers of my blog will notice that my complaints about academia, and they are many, are almost always couched in systemic terms. That’s not because every flaw is systemic; it’s because personal flaws are both idiosyncratic and (often) obvious. I’m trying to highlight the non-obvious stuff that torpedoes even well-intentioned, intelligent people, usually in the naïve hope that bringing it out into the open will make it easier to address. (Pseudonymity actually helps with that, since it takes some personal quirks out of the picture.)

Just to give one example of the kind of constraints Pfeffer and Sutton are talking about: approximately one-fifth of one percent of my overall budget is ‘discretionary.’ And even that paltry sum has to be left alone, for the occasional blown projector bulb (those suckers are five hundred bucks a pop!), sudden software upgrades made necessary by hardware upgrades, and the like. I am routinely excoriated by tenured faculty for not purchasing whatever six-figure piece of hardware they want for their program. My ‘no’ is taken as conclusive evidence, as if any more were needed, that administrators are vile, scum-sucking cretins, unworthy of drawing air. Surely, if I had any academic integrity whatsoever, I would go out back, shake my secret dean’s-money-tree, and hand over a blank check. That’s what managers do, right?

It must be nice to be so untroubled by facts, and so completely unaccountable for being wrong. This, from people whose job it is to be smart.

Later in the book, Pfeffer and Sutton capture better than I have what I consider the essence of good management, and what I keep trying to do:

Perhaps the best way to view leadership is as the task of architecting [ouch – call the verb police!] organizational systems, teams, and cultures – as establishing the preconditions for others to succeed. (p. 200)

Yup. That’s the art part. Set up the background conditions such that motivated, intelligent people can do their best work. Some of that involves money, of course, but much of it doesn’t.

The limiting factors here, other than money, are several. Some people have carved out comfy little niches for themselves in the interstices of irrational systems, and will defend those systems to the death. Some people really aren’t motivated at all, and would prefer not to have attention called to that fact. Some people don’t respond to messages unless they’re physically beaten over the head with them; a management style based on background conditions is too subtle for them to notice. And some people are just batshit crazy, and tenured.

Still, it’s gratifying to see a tome on management that doesn’t rely on moving cheese, glowing profiles of people who made their fortunes by abusing others, or The Seven anything. And anybody who can distill deaning to a paragraph (accurately!) has won my respect.

Now, if only I can convince the state to adopt evidence-based budgeting…

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