Book Review: Masters of Management by Adrian Wooldridge

Books that take a big picture theme and attempt to explain it clearly, preferably with a sprinkling of anecdotes, are in vogue. Alain de Botton recently brought us Religion for Atheists, while Sunstein and Thaler brought us Nudge, which proposed a ‘third way’ (while trying not to call it that) between paternalism and libertarianism. Amusing us with tales of insects painted onto urinals to encourage a sense of direction, they also took aim – in a more metaphorical sense – at behavioural economics, explaining how a cheese and wine party hosted by ‘Econs’ might turn out. (Fabulously for those who look primarily for efficiency as the sign of a good party, it would appear.)

Masters of Management, a fairly updated version of the earlier The Witch Doctors (an absolute classic, available from Amazon for £0.01 at time of writing, and still eminently readable), shares this ever-so-slightly-down-the-bridge-of-one’s-nose view of the labouring millions, as one might expect from a writer schooled by The Economist. There are one or two things that the reader has to take for granted -not least that this is a by-product of The Economist, and that free market theories will be politely and eruditely defended while egalitarian tendencies can expect criticism. But a few sacred cows are declared fair game along the way, and if not exactly slaughtered then at the least given quite a public carpeting. And the wider world also makes a welcome intrusion. Though it’s not the kind of book to use such a flippant example, were it to view, say, Cabaret through economists’ eyes, it wouldn’t stop at commenting on the skilful deployment of a low-cost pool of creative labour (the turns), the ironic brand-positioning (the band), and the approach to a potentially hostile demographic (selling drinks and ‘services’ to the SS). It would also point out that the rise of fascism and the advent of war was going to have a disastrous impact on more than just the bar’s P&L account.

Though the example above is not in the book, a lot of reputations emerge from its 400+ pages looking a little battered. Its earlier version was a more straightforward review of the rise and history of the whole arena of ‘management theory’ and ‘business schools’ and ‘gurus’ that looked with an unblinking eye at about a century of immaturity, hubris, flummery and outrageous cock-ups before deciding that only Peter Drucker (and, if you were feeling generous, Charles Handy and possibly Michael Porter) were truly worthy of much by the way of praise or recognition. Reading it, you got the feeling that the authors had had to switch to mains-powered bullshit detectors after the batteries gave up on their original models, but there was something admirable in their persistence. It felt like two wise men pointing out that the management industry would do better to stop bleating about not being taken seriously and pull its socks up, as frankly too much of it was a bit laughable.

Perhaps the absence on this revisitation of co-author John Micklethwait has had a mollifying effect, but comparing the two books reveals that the pith has largely been taken from the second book. Micklethwait, The Economist’s deputy editor, declined to work on the re-write, sensing that it required more than ‘tweaking’ and pleading other demands and responsibilities: although Masters of Management is still a fine book, his judgement may have been proved right. While large parts of the book are given over to explain the impact of globalisation, knowledge workers, the death of command-and-control (perhaps prematurely reported), technology and ‘The Crash’ – all major drivers and events since the first book – the result is a book that feels less well structured, and that attempts to cover some enormous areas of ground rather too fleetingly. Although, to inject the balance that the author would presumably admire, it is fair to say that if there is great book about the social changes of the last 25 years out there somewhere, it’s not one anybody has published yet. (Please comment with your suggestions if you disagree …)

If the tautness of the first book has been partly sacrificed in search of a broader sweep, that’s not to say that the management theory industry escapes unscathed. The book/article end of the spectrum comes in for particular scorn, and it would be fascinating to know how some of those on the receiving end (Richard Florida, Malcolm Gladwell, Robert Reich) feel about being publicly monstered by a man who is, when all’s said a done, a journalist. Our mass taste for ‘insight lite’ and business knowledge mean that we’re suckers for a book that promises to share the great secrets with us – which in turns means a booming industry for business pundits is inevitable. But the monstering is at least leavened by the inclusion of a lovely parody of Gladwell by Jacob Epstein:

Tall, wearing earring and metal plate in his head, availing himself of profanity of a kind that would make an Algerian camel driver blush, Zack Zipperman, PhD, has for the past 26 years, in his windowless laboratory at MIT, been teaching white mice to dance the cha-cha-chaa, with interesting results for those who can’t comprehend why men born after 1942 never carry handkerchiefs.”

That the likes of Gladwell (we weren’t much wowed by Outliers) can score bestsellers produces a momentum of its own. Academia now rewards those who publish frequent articles, while the individual academic may be as tempted to pen the best seller as to win the major prize. Their host institution might even prefer that they wrote the best seller. Wooldridge rightly identifies a vicious circle in which the business person’s urgent desire to unearth simplified explanations and magic solutions ensures there’s a ready market of books that pretend these things can be easily provided. (And has, depending on your hopes of it, either the decency or temerity to respond with a long, encyclopaedic and slightly messy book that contains no graphs, diagrams, cartoon or bullet lists.)

To this reader, the most interesting chapter – The Common Toad – looked at the evolution of work in the broadest sense, and the impact of its changes on … well, to paraphrase Philip Larkin, the common toad. Doing so allows Wooldridge to offer up a second guru (alongside Drucker) to largely escape criticism: Charles Handy. Unlike Drucker, there is no obvious school of acolytes or disciples to take his work forward, a point the author rues:

Handy has had surprisingly few imitators among today’s generation of management gurus: there is no Handy school of management thinking in the way that there is a Drucker school or a Prahalad school. Most gurus prefer to study “hard” subjects like strategy rather than “soft” ones like work. But handy deserves to be taken more seriously. He realized that work is undergoing a profound revolution – the most profound since the industrial revolution. And he came closer than anyone before him to charting the nature of that revolution.”

Ultimately, the book reviews a series of events, strategies, gurus, models and theories and subjects each in turn to rigorous testing for opportunities to ridicule them or undermine them with some basic facts. It should distress most readers that there is a high failure rate in this testing process: management theory – and practice – is plainly still awash with charlatanism, mad dashes from one fad to the next, half-baked theories and latter-day equivalents of the Flat Earth Society.

There is a sense that Wooldridge has looked at a century of management thinkers’ output and come to the conclusion that it resembles the story of a group of blindfolded men describing an elephant. Different groups have documented hypotheses about individual aspects – strategy, empowerment, vision, local vs. global, knowledge work, process engineering – but the overall blueprint is a mess. No-one has really come up with the definite Elephant Blueprint™. Worse, something we all believe to be the tail suddenly turns out to be either the trunk or the rope the elephant was tethered with.

Wooldridge offers a partial defence of management theory’s immaturity in that its openness to ideas from other streams (not least psychology) has re-invigorated it and helped it avoid a mono-cultural approach. As a common toad, I’m not sure that I would agree: the mono-cultural feel of much of corporate life seems like something that could do with a keener sense of self-scrutiny, a broader rapport with some other disciplines (not least sociology – which is providing some of the most interesting and challenging writing on working life) and less of an air of self-satisfaction. And despite the dire performance of economists in predicting the events of the last few years, the book seems reluctant to suggest that management theory might enhance its own credibility by adopting a slightly less cosy relationship with ‘the dismal science’.

Having always loved the first book, I hoped that Masters of Management would be as much a sharp-eyed page-turner as The Witch Doctors. Sadly, it isn’t, although I wouldn’t go so far as to agree with the Amazon reviewer who commented that:

Author Wooldridge, editor at the Economist, profiles a number of management thinkers and wonders whether the variation between their thinking is a sign of management theory’s ‘immaturity.’ Eventually, however, he concludes that this variation is a sign of ‘the profession’s vitality’ and openness to outside ideas. He should have stuck with his first inclination – as a result, he unwittingly ends up adding to the pile of management theory sophistry that confuses readers and that he previously decried in ‘The Witch Doctors.’

It’s definitely worth the read, although some sections perhaps require less careful attention. The scalpel sharp prose of its predecessor is replaced by something more spatula-like here, to the book’s ultimate detriment: the best option would, perhaps, be to read both – and then to review who else you read in the light of what you’ve learned. You might wish for sharper fangs along the way – the discussion of rising inequality, for example, is disappointingly apologist – but they are stuck into the kind of carcasses that deserve some public dissection.

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