Simon Terry

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Failing Forward in Management Science

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it – Max Planck

If science advances one funeral at a time, management ‘science’ advances more slowly. For management to advance, there must be a radical transformation in the nature of work and our organisations that makes old management practices extinct. That change is now underway as digital transformation changes our industries and our work.

Changing the Paradigm

The word ‘paradigm’ fits niceley into a buzzword bingo square for most in management. It is a fancy term that consultants like to throw around. However, paradigms are why science advances ‘one funeral at a time’. Prevailing theories in a scientific discipline create culture and power structures that are self-reinforcing. Thomas Kuhn referred to this as a paradigm – “the practices that define a scientific discipline at a certain point in time.”  Those practices shape who has seniority, what looks like a right answer, who gets to decide what is published and which research directions are acceptable. By shaping what is measured, what questions are asked and how answers are interpreted, a paradigm has a long reach shaping the continuation of that approach.  As long as the proponents of the current paradigm are in power, alternative approaches are often suppressed or at least confined to the periphery.

Management likes to see itself as a science of measurement and performance, but the reality is that it is far less scientific. Much of management is complicated resulting in difficult or remote or multi-factor connections between cause and effect.  Much of management is still run on intuition or prevailing opinions. These elements reinforce the prevailing paradigms.  If we look for dramatic changes in the theory of management, they are few and far between, many of the everyday principles we have today can be traced to the beginning of the industrial revolution or to Taylorism at the beginning of the mass manufacturing age.

How can these ideas be so enduring when in many cases there is strong evidence a management approach is ineffective. There is plenty of evidence that pay for performance remuneration and highly targeted performance environments can be ineffective, costly and even counter-productive. However, these approaches remain the default way that organisations manage, measure and reward performance. Dan Pink gives some examples in this short video.

Why does it takes a radical shake-up in the nature of industry and our organisations for managers to reflect on whether there is a fundamentally better way of fulfilling their roles? Management theorists like Gary Hamel have been calling for management innovation for some time but the progress has been weak. The few managers who have sought to lead change have been seen as mavericks with the adjective ‘dangerous’ held back for private conversations. Even successful examples of new management approaches such as those flowing from the Toyota Production System have been either isolated to a few organisations or been adapted to fit within the prevailing management paradigm for general consumption.

Here’s my hypothesis. Failing ideas in management survive because the measurement is weak so proving failure is less direct than in a university experiment and the social pressures to conform in management are so strong. Career progressing in management is entirely dependent on being a right thinking leader like other past successful leaders. Worse still the paradigm in management has become ingrained in processes and systems so that efforts to change require radical overthrow of the way businesses work. The outcome is that change is not a question of a generation of management dying off. Change in the paradigm can require a whole industry model to die off under the competitive assault of new models.  The first industrial businesses powered by water, steam and machines killed off the craftsman model of industry. The mass-manufacturing businesses and Taylorism killed off the first industrial models of work.

The Next Great Extinction of Management

The next great extinction of management has already begun with the digital transformation of business. With the rise of new digital competitors, we are seeing a new found energy in the innovation of management. This time around the innovators have management directly in their cross-hairs with new work management practices like Agile and approaches like increased use of analytics and prediction seeking to either remove traditional management roles or reshape them entirely.

Traditional organisations have begun to look at their practices afresh as they see traditional management role models struggle and fail. At the same time, they admire and seek to replicate the success of newer organisations, hiring their talent and seeking to bring new practices across at the same time. The change is not always driven by evidence or even success. In many cases, the shifting management paradigm is simply driven by a fear of being left behind and the need to create evidence of change that enables the next career opportunity.

With a great deal up for debate and much of the future paradigm in flux, the market for management is as confronted with much insightful and proven practice and a great deal showmanship & thought leadership. The lack of a clear path and the flailings of traditional managers to either defend old ways or jump on new approaches can be frustrating for change agents looking to consistently build new and better approaches to work. The better organisations are embracing their change agents and realising that they cannot import ‘best practices’ whole they must adapt new ways of working to their own circumstances and organisation.

Change Agents are critical for organisations navigating these changes.  Management is less a science and more about the creation and shaping of a culture of performance. That culture is inherently local to each organisation and influenced by the complexity of the environment, team, purpose and goals of that team. As the surrounding environment in organisations becomes more complex and the pace of business continues to drive change, businesses cannot rely any longer on importing best practices and copying them onto their organisation. They must be looking to develop adaptive cultures of perfomance within their organisation that are learning and continuously changing.  Platforms that enable change agents to sustain this change will be critical.

By the time you hear about the next great management book that everyone is reading, the paradigm will have changed. Focus instead on how your organisation can manage the process of learning and adaptation to deliver excellence in performance and the realisation of human potential. That’s the future of management


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