Learning From the Management Gurus

If I could read only one magazine a week, it would be “The Economist” because it has such a variety of topics written in a style I enjoy. I have subscribed to the Economist since I was in graduate school and it has contributed as much to my education as my grad school experience.  Actually, all education, formal and otherwise, builds what went before.   I was reminded of that today with this Economist article on Fredrick Taylor

I met Taylor (figuratively) in grad-school when I studied operations research.   He is the father of “scientific management” and while I think the strict application of his theory is probably a bad thing (Lenin was a Taylor fan), he did start the systematic study of management processes that has done a lot to create the modern prosperity we now enjoy.   Peter Drucker wrote that Taylor was, “the first man in history who did not take work for granted, but looked at it and studied it. His approach to work is still the basic foundation”.    That was worth something.  

I don’t like the practical and complete application of the theories.   Even if you don’t know Taylor, you know his work.  He is the time management guy, the one who set loose all those guys with clipboards and stopwatches to measure workers.   “In our scheme, we do not ask the initiative of our men. We do not want any initiative. All we want of them is to obey the orders we give them, do what we say, and do it quick.”  That assumes you don’t want innovation or initiative. This was the frightening world of “Modern Times” or “Metropolis” and in the early 20th Century the trends didn’t look good.  Fortunately trends never continue and we got back to a more human and humane system, at least in theory.  Humans don’t work like machines and everybody is better off if everybody is thinking.

That’s Taylor on the left. I will let those who care enough read re the other stars of management.  Here are the links:
Max Weber, Richard Rumelt, Warren Buffett,  Richard Pascale, Alfred Sloan, Peter Senge, Laurence Peter, Henry MintzbergPeter DruckerGeert Hofstede, Abraham Maslow, Douglas McGregor, Gary Hamel, Michael Porter,  Dale Carnegie, Igor Ansoff, Warren Bennis, Frank and Lillin GilbrethC.K. Prahalad.

Of course every real-world leader needs to develop methods that fit with his own strengths, circumstances and proclivities. The management theorists can inform choices, but they cannot make them for you (anyway many of the gurus are sometimes a bit like Harold Hill in the “Music Man.”) I learned a lot from reading the theories and then trying them out in practice.  I read most of Peter Drucker’s books and I had several of Tom Peters’ books.  In Search of Excellence” had a lot of influence on me because I read that when I was in grad-school and it was one of my first books of that kind.  I must have spent thousands of dollars on leadership/management books. BTW – I also consider the reading of biographies as a type of leadership training.   You learn from the experience of others.

I found Maslow’s hierarchy of needs a very useful construct when I was in Iraq.  As Maslow points out, you can’t accomplish much until you meet basic safety and security needs.   All the other things were just not possible out of that sequence.  That insight alone was probably studying him.    I am not saying that we should apply these ideas w/o modification, but they are very useful.   Most of the Marine officers I talked with in Iraq were familiar with Maslow and they got it right too. “The Economist” reminded me of something I had forgotten.   I read Henry Mintzberg in grad-school, but not since.  But I had internalized something he wrote, and paraphrased it for many years, probably because it fit in well with my personal preferences.   Mintzberg was very different from Taylor’s machine like idea of focusing on task.  The good managers he studied jumped from topic to topic.   According to Mintzberg, good managers thrive “on interruptions and more often than not disposes of items in ten minutes or less. Though he may have 50 projects going, all are delegated.” In a study of British managers at the time, he found that they worked without interruption for more than half an hour only “about once every two days”. He also found that senior managers spent more than three-quarters of their time in oral communication. He concluded, “the job of managing is fundamentally one of processing information, notably by talking and especially by listening.” To be a good manager you have to be a good listener.”

Management is not the same as other sorts of work.  That is why when the guy who seems to be the most serious worker in the place is put in charge, things often go wrong and why self-described hard workers often think their boss isn’t doing anything.    Making connections and understanding the whole becomes more and more important as you get farther along and the value of actual “work” declines.  It becomes more important to know what to do and work through others.

The management gurus tend to put leadership and managment in the same boat.  There are differences.  I think it is easier to study and define management.  In Taylor’s world, leadership is only management and even that is essentially surrendered to the system.  In a really well designed scientific management system managers are more like administrators.  Leadership is needed to set new courses and create change.  If you are not going anywhere, you don’t need leadership to get you there.

It is almost impossible to describe precisely what a good leader does that makes him/her a good leader, or when you describe it, it sounds trivial.  He just knows what to do.  Things just work better and more smoothly when some people are around.  And of course there are some leaders who are just creators of useless effort.  Life doesn’t have to be that hard. Maybe the management gurus can put it in better words than I can.

The lesson I took was that leaders working ostensibly hard behind their desks are not really working very effectively and if things are going wrong, it is more likely BECAUSE of rather than in spite of their best efforts.  Working hard on the wrong thing is worse than doing nothing at all.  Leadership above all means making the right choices.   Besides, as RR said, it is true that hard work never killed anybody, but I figure why take the chance?   Maybe they should waste a little time walking around and talking to the people doing the work, and read “The Economist” every Saturday.