100 Years of Magical Realism in Management

‘Off with their heads’ Photo by energepic.com on Pexels.com

It seemed as if some penetrating lucidity permitted her to see the reality of things beyond any formalism.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’

I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

For over a century, years management theory has asked us to believe our daily diet of six impossible things (Fayol’s five plus measurement). We take these six things to be the art of management so for granted that we rarely stop to consider their role in the design of every action we do at work. Like the characters of a magical realist novel, our management lives have their own unique logic divorced from the exacting demands of reality. We ignore the warning signals of this world because it does not fit with the narrative.

Weary searching a bad cipher
For a good that must be meant;
Discontent with being weary,—
   Weary with my discontent.

Alice Cary, To Solitude

The Bad Cipher

Fayol’s list and his logic reflects his context. Fayol was documenting management science at its inception in the late 19th century. A contemporary of Frederick Winslow Taylor, both he and Taylor were providing managers with ‘scientific’ tools to bring order to the rapid expansion of industrial capacity and transformation of industry to reflect new tools of communication like the telegraph and later the telephone and transportation, through the railways and the automobile. Fayol and Taylor were describing processes to bring order to chaos in industrial and mining contexts with often unskilled workforces. Often workforces for whom they had little respect.

 I can say, without the slightest hesitation, that the science of handing pig-iron is so great that the man who is fit to handle pig-iron as his daily work cannot possibly understand the science; the man who is physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron; and this in ability of the man who is fit to do the work to understand the science of doing his work becomes more and more evident as the work becomes more complicated, all the way up the scale. I assert, without the slightest hesitation, that the high-class mechanic has a far smaller chance of ever thoroughly understanding the science of his work than the pig-iron handler has of understanding the science of his work

Frederick Winslow Taylor

It is our loss that we are still applying similar logic as the essence of management a century later in a global economy when the communication technologies are digital networks and real-time global logistics underpin our transportation. The logic of superior control and direction hardly applies at all to the modern networked knowledge economy and particularly the focus on services that now shapes an increasing amount of our economic activity. We cannot begin to assume that somewhere there is smarter management scientist better able to shape the work.

Fayol’s fourteen principles of management, being longer and less memorable, lack the same traction. They include principles of fair remuneration, equity, stability of tenure and initiative for employees. The value of these latter principles have been lost in the relentless focus of management on command and control. The allure of power and its wealth and now global reach means that some of the local community characteristics of early management were lost in the wash. As we now deal with labour shortages and disgruntled workforces it is intriguing to see this community orientation returning to employee engagement.

Fayol’s five functions of management are born of a desire to simplify work down to a convenient and carefully constructed fable. Complex dynamics are lost in simple, predicatable and mechanical myths of performance. As we plan, organise, command, co-ordinate and control, we follow a linear authorial path towards a predetermined outcome with magical regularity. Uncertainty is swept aside by the superior powers and perceptions of the managerial class. Like an all-knowing narrator, the manager sees the sweep of history and can shape the tale to their liking and their entertainment.

I have thrown in measurement because it is rare that a discussion of management does not devolve into the science of measurement and its ability to shape influence on people. Measures poorly constructed and blindly applied have done far more damage to performance than individual worker shortcomings. We are entrapped in the farcical reality of magic realist systems of measurement, prone to illusions and magical manipulation. Most important of all management turns its attention from all that cannot be measured with sufficient certainty, regularity, or confidence.

The linearity of this view of management relieves the complex systems of most modern work from inspection. We can blame our people, our planning or our managers but we do not review the design of the work or its fitness for the challenges faced by the organisation. We can eject people as unfit and ignore their past and future successes as inconvenient to our story. Reality of complicated and complex systems, changing circumstances or the need to respond to forces beyond our control are swept away by a magical narrative of power and expertise.

Loss of Direction

Lost in the solitude of his immense power, he began to lose direction.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

So many people are shocked to discover that CEOs, the epitome of power in the exercise of Fayol’s five management functions, often see themselves as powerless. From the pinnacle of their organisations, they see not command and control, but forces working against their direction – markets, stakeholders, competitors, fellow managers and the vagaries of the organisation system that they did not design and often barely perceive.

Exhorting people from the CEOs office to manage better rarely improves performance. There may be the Hawthorne effect of attention or the jolt of a short sharp shock but it will fade. Sustainable changes in performance requires adaptive leadership that will lean into the systemic and cultural change that enables people to do what they think is better, away from the myths and romantic notions of planning.

I escape to the same places and same words.
Cold breeze from the sea, the ice-dragon’s licking
              the back of my neck while the sun glares.
The moving van is burning with cool flames.

Tomas Transtomer, Alcaic

Wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Our ‘wildest and most tenacious love’ for the power of management will fade. We need to let go the certainty of linear machine metaphors of performance and in particular those that degrade or demean the contributions of those who do the work. Work cannot be done to or through people, like widgets. Adam Kahane highlighted that we need a balance of love and power in our efforts at complex change and the same logic underpins the work of management in shaping any organisation.

The greatest work is an expression of a unique group of people through their contributions, their interactions, their talents and their intelligence. When we focus on the potential of organisations to help people realise these capabilities and to respond to dynamic and changing environments we begin to create better and more sustainable systems of management beyond the romantic centuries old tales of power. When management is the art of realising the potential of people and an organisation in the reality of the world in which we live then perhaps we can move on to a more amenable and shared feast for breakfast.

And both of them remained floating in an empty universe where the only everyday and eternal reality was love

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

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