Management by Fad is Fading from the Scene

I once had the opportunity to see a diagram produced to describe management fads.

These things come and go, wax and wane. Most of them come from one or another consulting firm.

What was particularly interesting was that this diagram covered a century.

The left side showed waves — an idea would rise, run, fall away. Then they started to overlap a bit. Around 1980 they started to pile up. By the right hand edge of the graphic there were fifty or more faddish ideas piled up in a great jumble.

This is, of course, what modern management consulting is like.

It is why the big consulting firms seem a bit — probably far more than a bit — charlatanic. Get the right catch phrase — “six sigma”, “TQM”, “balanced scorecard”, whatever — and ride the horse as hard as you can.

Whether clients actually prosper, of course, is irrelevant, as long as the partners of the firm do.

This is why big consulting is a form of finance capitalism, no better than the sleaze-bags so wonderfully described in the cartoon strip Alex [far more vicious than Dilbert]: do and say anything that keeps the fees rolling in.

I, for whom some consulting is also a part of my work life, end up wondering to what extent any work product will be, to an point, tainted by the disease of faddism and fee engineering.

Is it overtly and overly-complex? (“See how smart we are?”) or overly simple? (“We’re so smart we don’t even have to show you our work” — something pointed out in the book House of Lies as a McKinsey modus operandi).

Then, of course, there’s also the question as to how much use any of the work product that is delivered is, anyway, since most of it was bought to sit on a shelf and keep the struggling plant company in any event.

Thinking ahead, of course, downturns — and we are more than due for the second round on this one! — lead to consulting cutbacks.

The whole industry is a feast-or-famine one, yet another example of herd think in action.

When times are harder, businesses need, more than anything else, integration across many domains of expertise.

There is no time, or money, for point solutions (or grand faddish schemes): the enterprise’s many parts must be drawn together and a common, implementable course of action laid out, a “forced march”, if you will.

(Without this, the traditional “across-the-board” cuts will kill novelty but leave the fat, dumb and happy corners of the company — often the corporate
staff groups — well above anything resembling lean. We wonder why companies can’t cut their way to greatness.)

The great cri de cœur that lies ahead is a rejection of monoculture.

For a grocery chain, a replacement of national buying with each store buying locally, for instance. Safeway here won’t be Safeway there, but in each place it will be what it needs to be.

This kind of focus on key points rather than easy and replicable ones — the ones that allow an army of NUGs (New University Graduates) and IROCs (Idiots Right Out of College) to be injected for billing purposes into an engagement, and requiring a whole infrastructure of principals, regional partners, practice area partners and managing partners (all fully metered) to be used don’t work that way — and so the Masters of the Consulting Universe will need to find new ways to work.

“For there will be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth, for we ourselves are called to change, and we shall no doubt be found happily stabbing each other in the back rather than anything else for that way shalt the survivors be able to play the game they know rather than learn a new one…”

I do believe that a decade from now most management fads will be gone from view.

Our needs will be far more basic.

To begin, most firms will be busy working on problems of robustness and resilience, not efficiencies, global chains and endless dreams of growth. They’ll be shifting from quantity to quality.

For this the management theory set and consulting practice books are woefully ill-prepared.

Clients will be smaller; diversity will again be the rule. With them mega-firms managed from London, Bermuda, New York or Armonk will pass into history as the giants that stride the planet now. None, I daresay, will truly miss them.

It will be interesting, however, to see just what use an MBA is when real work is required — you know, the sort that produces something of value rather than just another “300” slide deck or report-by-the- kilogram.

The great saving grace for the firms at this point? Talent has been concentrated in them, not in their clients. Their clients, in turn, are addicted to “turning the problem over” — it is perceived to be the safe choice.

As relocalisation begins to take hold, the demand for general management skill will increase. As it does, there will be less use of consultants to do “strategic” things — perhaps more base level work, while we build new organisations.

The kind that are competent to look after themselves, perhaps?

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2 Comments

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  1. JoAnn Eaton 13/04/2012 — 16:10

    My husband’s former company brought in consultants all the time to evaluate employees, their management style, their results. There may have been some excellent tools there, but bottom line. To be successful: Listen to your customers and their issues. Do something about their issues in a timely fashion. Know your product and develop teamwork capitalizing on the strengths of each team member. Is that so hard?

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