Management fads – Food for thought?

Over the last 20 years I have worked in and around organisations bothts with minimum effort. But, says Robert Craven, if the basic business ingredients are wrong, adjusting the seasoning will do no good. large and small as a consultant, trainer and businessman. The businesses’ search for the holy grail often seems to be about looking at the latest management fad and seeing whether it can be applied to make the business any better. It can be argued that, just like diet programmes, most of the fads do not work – they are a con.

Every new management technique entices and excites. Often the “new” idea is an old one re-presented. As the willing consumer peels off the wrapping paper and reads the copy on the box we are told of how the contents will transform the way we do things. Further copy on the side describes the contents as the result of some form of a breakthrough technology and/or research which will enable the company to see miracle results with minimum effort.

The dieting guru is akin to the management guru. The new diet book is normally based on “careful research” and the title will be something hopefully quite catchy. The book will feature some famous characters (or businesses) who applied the principles set out in the book and so their lives have been transformed.

A typical example of the diet book is the current fad, The Kensington Diet. The name is catchy and has all the right connotations. The guru is Stephen Twigg. Those who have used the “method” are, of course, Princess Diana along with other famous aficionados including Helen Mirren, Koo Stark and Liz Hurley. Sir John Miles writes the introduction to the book.

What a brilliant line-up – a PR agency’s dream. And naturally, the principles extolled in the book worked for these particular individuals.

Take any of the recent management books and you find the same recipe, or dare I say, combination: guru, plus a “new” method, plus star examples and case studies, plus some good packaging. Tom Peters is a past master at making this formula work, including rewrites acknowledging where the earlier books had failed the test of time (Thriving on Chaos superseded In Search of Excellence as the quoted “excellent” companies were not able to deliver sustainable results).

There is of course a fundamental difference between the diet books and the management books; usually the management books are based on University-based research – hence some rigour is usually applied. Dieting books, however make claims that often cannot be substantiated. Management acknowledges its position as a “social” science, that is, not a real science – in this instance it can observe and try to make generalisations from the world it has witnessed. Methods to be adopted should be as scientific as possible – I would add that the pure scientists’ definition of “scientific” will be somewhat more rigorous than that of the social scientist but there are other places where that argument can take place.

We only need to look as far as the audiences for management and dieting literature to see that there are many similarities. Both management and dieting have entire industries using the ‘”best” available research methods to establish developments in thinking in their respective subjects. Both industries also have a popular wing that is less rigorous in its approach and more willing to make sweeping generalisations about their success rates and so forth, in order to make financial gain.

The audience for the more popular management books want to find a simple recipe, a universal antidote, that will solve all their problems and require them to suffer relatively little for major results – the same also applies to dieting; the ideal dieting book would enable you to lose weight by simply reading it. The reality is just not like that. Real change requires real effort.

The Kensington Diet is the fashionable book – food combining is apparently the way forward – look at all the publicity it is getting! It was first invented in the ’30s by Dr William Howard Hay – his lucrative theory, The Hay Diet, was supported by some American Naturopath contemporaries. The theory is that obesity is banished if one never mixes proteins and carbohydrates at the same meal and fruit is eaten alone.

The idea is that different foods are better digested by different parts of the intestine and that mixing foods means that something isn’t digested properly. Other rules include: no liquids with meals (Wot, no wine?), and reduction in wheat products (Wot, no bread?) to once every five days.

Melon doesn’t mix at all(!) and avoid lentils and pulses because of their dodgy carbohydrate-protein balance.

The majority of nutritional scientists are united in the opinion that there is no scientific evidence to support the apparent success of the stars on the diet. The reason you lose weight is because the diet encourages you to cut down on excess calories and fat, that’s all.

Losing weight is relatively straightforward from a scientist’s point of view. There is only one diet that works – one that involves eating fewer calories and/or expending more in exercise. All that commercial diets can do is offer you some assistance in getting you to achieve this goal.

There is no shortcut. Of the Kensington Diet, Dr Finer, head of the obesity clinic at the Luton and Dunstable Hospital says, “the principles of the diet are mysterious and unscientific”.

So what has this got to do with management? Time after time, businesses I work with chase the magic success which is the latest fad. But to me, if the basics are wrong, then it doesn’t matter how much time you spend tampering with the detail. Time and time again, boards spend their time worrying about the deck chairs on the “Titanic” without considering the fundamental problems.

Good businesses are preoccupied with three basic things – they have an obsessive focus on teams and people, an obsessive focus on marketing and what the customer wants, and an obsessive focus on strategy and planning.

All else is commentary. If these basics are not in place then the business will not be sustainable.

I am fed up with going into businesses where the issue of how their people are treated has not been sorted out. No matter what industry I work in, it is the “people issue” which employees, managers and owners so often talk about as unsatisfactory. You would think that the people running these organisations could spend their time ensuring that their workforce, both at management and at the shop-floor level feel happy about their roles.

One of two things is going on. Either all people in an organisation habitually complain about other people in the organisation – “they don’t communicate well”, “they don’t listen”, “they are unreasonable” – and they do this because that is simply how people are; or, alternatively, we haven’t got it right – we create, run and work in organisations where, despite 4,000 years of civilisation, we have not yet learnt the basics of how to get on with each other.

My belief is in the second option – we simply have not got it right. We refuse to pay attention to the way in which we treat our people in our organisations. Quite why we do this is not clear.

But in the same way that the basic principles of weight control are elementary, so are those involved in running a business. There is no great rocket science about it – after all there are plenty of happy families around.

No, what infuriates me is the regularity with which I see businesses where the human resource issues have not been sufficiently addressed.

Robert Craven MBA MIMC CMC is an associate of Warwick Business School.

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