The Management Myth: Debunking Modern Business Philosophy by Matthew Stewart

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The Management Myth: Debunking Modern Business Philosophy by Matthew Stewart

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Category: Business and Finance
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A thorough review of the history of management consulting that successfully debunks the so-called science involved. Some great insights that many a CEO should take note of, but maybe a bit too heavy for the general reader.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 352 Date: September 2010
Publisher: WW Norton & Co
ISBN: 978-039333852

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Stewart's book is subtitled "Debunking Modern Business Philosophy". It is a criticism (and I mean criticism not critique) of the management consultancy business since its inception to the close of the first decade of the 21st century.

Matthew Stewart is a former management consultant, so he should know what he's talking about.

On the other hand, by his own admission he made a more than reasonable profit out of management consulting, and he is now doing likewise out of showing what a sham it all is. Make of that what you will.

He worked (somewhat accidentally he'll have you believe) for one of the biggest most prestigious management consultants in the U.S., left them as part of a break-away group which succeeded brilliantly and then failed equally brilliantly. He may have an axe or two to grind.

He got out of the latter firm having recouped most of his dues, which was more than many of his colleagues managed. He may be sharper than most of his ilk when it comes to genuine business acumen.

What does any of this tell you?

It told me to pay close attention – but be sure to have the salt cellar to hand.

Let's start at the beginning. The title. No argument with that. I've been in business (well, we call it the social sector, but, you know, get real) for more than 25 years. In that time I've seen my organisation hire any number of non-technical consultants for various flavour-of-the-month programmes, most of which do not seem to have produced any real fundamental lasting change for the better. Those cynics among us have a very clear view of what a "Consultant" is: someone who will steal your watch, then charge you a fee to tell you the time.

If the management grail existed it wouldn't be propounded by consultants, it would have been patented, copyrighted and sold wholesale. We would, as a result, have a perfect economy.

Which, of course, would then adapt due to what the Wizards on the Discworld would call "quantum" and the rest of us would call "greed, ingenuity and innovation" and that would throw the system back into chaos, which would require a totally different single sure-fire system for success.

Of course it's a myth.

The only question is how, when many other myths are now recognised for their comforting but otherwise useless effects, this one is still raking in the spondulicks for the snake-oil merchants.

That isn't a question Stewart addresses directly, but the answer to it does emerge from his considerations on the overall history and nature of the subject at hand.

Then there is the subtitle: "Debunking Modern Business Philosophy". This is an odd selection, since it is precisely what Stewart isn't doing. The whole thesis behind this work is that "business management" should be treated specifically as a philosophy and that the whole gamut of wasted opportunity and skewed research and downright falsified results that have been paid handsomely for over the last century or so have largely been allowed to accrue by a mistaken attempt to treat the "philosophy" as a "science".

So: enough about the author and the book cover… what's inside?

In keeping with the flavour of the moment literature-wise (Stewart confesses to being a frustrated novelist) he weaves together two tales. The first is his own life story in the consultancy business; the second is the history of the consultancy business itself starting with the pig-iron-loading time and motion studies of F W Taylor at the end of the 19th century right up to the latest musings of Drucker, Peters, Collins and Covey.

If those last names mean nothing to you, you probably don't need this book.

If you're of my cynical bent you will be highly amused by the Stewart life-story – especially if your firm has managed to avoid hiring anyone with whom he has been associated. Right up to the point where you read the intervening chapters and realise that actually, it all works this way, and whoever you've hired has probably been exploiting your weaknesses in much the way he illustrates.

The historical strand looks at the experiments and reports and considers the data used. In most cases Stewart's take suggests that results were, shall we say, over-emphasised at best. In many cases they were downright falsified, and in virtually all cases there is an absence of a control group. The bottom line he tells us time and time again is that at best there are instances of correlation, but no established causation.

None of the experiments are replicable, by simple virtue of the fact that the markets change and therefore the conditions in which the experiment was performed cannot themselves be replicated. This is partly what gives the consultancy business its life-span… they have the best get-out clause in the business: the non-predictability of life.

Yet surely, that is what a science of business ought to be able to allow for? – is the question Stewart raises, knowing full well that it cannot.

The "New Yorker" review of The Management Myth called it "Entertaining and slightly shocking". Not quite. It does raise more than a wry smile in places, but generally speaking it is quite heavy going. Stewart is a philosopher by education and it shows. He descends into ideological discourses that run for too many pages to bother to keep track. He labours the details. I cannot honestly say that I actually enjoyed reading it.

I often wished I'd never started it.

Nor is it that shocking for those of us who'd suspected as much all along. If anything it is reassuring to learn that we weren't too far off the mark.

But: and it is a big BUT… it could be an important book. I have at least twenty separate dog-eared corners after a first reading of things that I would wish to raise in my own organisation. Among them are things like: Why are we taking advice on how to run our business from people who have never run one of their own? Have we considered that the only real function consultants have is to force us to analyse our own data, for which they charge us? Are we, ultimately, allowing ourselves to be blinded, not by science, but by jargon? We're not alone in any of this… I'd be more than happy if we were alone in having the courage to walk away from it. We have some stunning people at the top of our firm – we could benefit more from their experience than from the non-experience of all the MBA's in the world.

And that, essentially, is what Stewart sets out to tell us. Trust yourself. Trust your own experience and apply it to the current market place. You won't do any worse than the consultants to whom you'd otherwise pay good money. To truly understand what any given business is doing right or doing wrong, you have to fully understand what it is doing. Most businesses don't have the machinery and / or can't afford the time to do that, so we stagger on as best we can with the best-available data. Every consultancy appointment I've been peripherally involved with has ultimately fallen down on our inability to provide the data they need to run their models. If we had easy access to that data, we could run the ruddy model ourselves!!!

Sorry. A high-horse moment there. I'll climb down.

Stewart ends up comparing the Management Gurus with the Self-help Gurus. They trade in platitudes and motivation. On a personal level I have no problem with that. I LOVE the whole 'self-help' arena and have found some of it genuinely useful. The difference is: I don't pay much for that (a fiver here or there for a book maybe, a bit of time-wasting on the internet) and I get to pick'n'mix. What works I take on board; what doesn't I jettison. And I can use all the motivation I can get. That's the luxury of having only invested five quid. If you've paid something with several noughts on the end for pretty much the same advice, you might just feel a bit more committed to at least trying to make it work.

In the final analysis, Stewart seems to take my view. Listen to what the guys are saying, but do have the salt cellar handy – and don't by any means pay for it.

Any manager worth her salt knows more than the guys peddling the latest theories, but they might just have an insight you haven't thought of… or a pretty presentation you might want to steal (back).

RECOMMENDATION? Not one for the generalist. If you're working for any organisation that has "strategies" and "transformation programmes" – you not only need to read it, you need to understand it and then buy a copy for your Chief Exec's "Secret Santa" basket. The generalist might appreciate Polar Bear Pirates and Their Quest to Engage the Sleepwalkers: Motivate Everyday People to Deliver Extraordinary Results by Adrian Webster.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: once you've read this, you’re geared up to read everything else in the business and management reading list with an open mind. Go, Enjoy.

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