Colin Coulson-Thomas is something of an oddity in a world where management thought is virtually the new rock and roll. He has refused to boil down his analysis to a soundbite formula or to adopt the grandstanding tactics that have brought fame and fortune to the likes of Tom Peters.
In a sense this is inevitable – an approach to management that revolves around the careful analysis of complex issues, and an attempt to evaluate and balance all the options open to business is hardly likely to be expressed in “five things that begin with C”. Coulson-Thomas is the author of several influential books (most recently The Future of the Organisation) but these revolve around the patient accumulation of detail and experience and the attempt to build a holistic approach to management and transformation.
As such they are next to impossible to review briefly, and hardly likely to appeal to the ambitious middle manager looking to while away an internal flight to Birmingham.
“Management books have dropped to such depths,” says Coulson-Thomas.
“They tend to focus on a particular technology or approach. But when people revolutionise how business is done, it’s never as a result of one approach: you have to be aware of the range of options.”
Coulson-Thomas perceives this lack of awareness of “the rich tapestry of actual life” as a key management weakness. “If you’re setting out to build a global company, there’s far more taught in international relations or political science. Or you could read a good novel.”
In taking a holistic, humanising approach to management, Coulson-Thomas finds himself at odds with the techniques of some of the large consultancies:
“You can help people get to the promised land, by helping them understand themselves and focus on what they’re good at. Working collaboratively with what they’ve got – it’s a great mystery to me why more people aren’t pushing that – it doesn’t involve large numbers of consultants.”
Coulson-Thomas is critical of the way that large consultancy projects often involve looking for areas of relative deficiency in an organisation and then bringing everything up to some perceived average, rather than focusing on the skills that truly set them apart.
“It’s about understanding what sort of an organisation it is, of finding ways of working that enable them to be supremely good at what they do, rather than adequate at a lot of things.”
The danger with reductionist methodologies is that they throw the baby out with the bathwater: “Look at reengineering,” he says. “We were doing that for about five years before anyone wrote about it. Then they missed all the things that made it work, the softer things. It’s a great shame people were misled.”
Managerial obsession with structures and formulae lock businesses into a straitjacket: “What does management add?” asks Coulson-Thomas. “Instead of being instinctive they use standard tools or trot out some matrix.
You’ll never be innovative if you use other people’s ideas and frameworks.
It’s like replacing the capability of the human brain with the programmed responses of the robot.”
Co-operation and collaboration are more important than technologies or frameworks, he says. “Look at religious movements, how religious ideas have spread. It’s through focus and single-mindness of purpose.”
He mentions a client whose internal systems are largely archaic-card systems and typewriters – but in the area that matters to clients the firm excels.
“There’s no substitute for a good idea,” he says. “Most technologies are neutral or irrelevant to your goals. You do not need to be good at everything. Loads of organisations are slowly dying yet have dozens of people involved in improving the quality of what they’re doing.”
This results in a world of organisations that are “quite good”. “But no-one wants “good” when you can have someone who is outstandingly good.”
World-shattering insights are more likely to come out of sitting under a tree like Budhha than a quick trip to the PC superstore. Throwing technology at problems is futile: “If something is a problem, do without it,” is one of Coulson-Thomas’ mottoes. If, for example, stock is causing difficulties, then it may be more useful to find ways of working without stock than installing the latest stock control software. “Never assume that the latest technology is better than what you already have,” he adds, citing a client which has ripped out a network of workstations and replaced it with paper systems. “Instead of working together, people were peering into VDU screens all day,” he says. He is equally sceptical about the “information revolution”.
“Knowledge in itself is useless – what’s the point of all these databases?” He says the key to success is to pinpoint what’s important to add value.
“The availability of all this information and knowledge is like the opium that put China to sleep. It could destroy Western civilisation. You could end up never having an original thought in your life.
“Most people are consumers and recyclers of other people’s ideas which circulate like a plague or a virus-people seem to have lost the ability to think for themselves,” he says. “But I’ve yet to meet an entrepreneur who’s mentioned getting within 100 yards of referee journals, let alone a management book.”
The role of the consultant, in Coulson-Thomas’ view, is far more that of a counsellor or coach, rather than someone who imposes a methodology.
It is to discover what people want out of life, and help them regain a sense of purpose.
“The purpose for most large organisations is limited to getting through the next 12 months,” he says. “Improve the ratios, hang in there – if that is your only motivation you’re going to die.”
Large organisations are “easily impressed by technology and techniques that have nothing to do with what they really want to do. Each time they make another bar on the prison cell”.
But despite recognising the fact that there is a growing gap between the large, stagnant organisations and the smaller, more dynamic ones that are challenging them, Coulson-Thomas is not in the “let the dinosaurs die” camp. “Not everyone has what it takes to be an Internet entrepreneur,” he says, pointing out that scale is a prerequisite for large projects such as ship-building.
“My main purpose is to rescue these large bureaucratic organisations, turn them into human organisations that can work on a family scale, that can be true to themselves. It is possible to turn giants into international networks that can be useful to people.”
A key obstacle to this process is management itself, the structures that encourage the proliferation of “crawlers, bootlickers and toads”, as Coulson-Thomas puts it in one of his unexpected bursts of invective.
Current obsessions with technology, squeezing out costs, bureaucratic “quality” are deskilling the labour force are causing companies to slowly die. The consultancy industry does not escape blame in this-Coulson-Thomas believes that in many ways a “dependency culture” has been created:
“Consultants make organisations leaner and create the need to buy expertise back in,” he says. “The consultancies grow in proportion to the slimming down of their clients.”
However, he doesn’t want to be seen as totally anti: “I’ve never knocked large consultancies: the Year 2000 problem shows that we do need large organisations, an international mechanism by which solutions can be rolled out all over the world.”
However, he feels that as consultancies attract more and more of the world’s talented young people, they have a responsibility as the guardians of an ever-increasing share of the world’s intellectual capital: “Consultancy organisations are the ones that would gain the most from doing the things I talk about.”
Coulson-Thomas’ message is fundamentally a positive one, that firms can survive and prosper rather than meekly collaborating in their own decline and fall:
“Get into ascending spirals – it can go up like a moonrocket the minute you do that. We’re all trapped in games, on a treadmill, struggling to keep companies alive that have lost their sense of purpose.”
Companies should apply the “so-what test”, he says. “If you ceased to exist, what would the world lose? You’ve got to have some compelling reason for being there, otherwise it’s just a cruel deception. Then you can look people in the eye.”
Visitors from Mars would be baffled by our inertia, he suggests. “We have more choice than any generation in history in terms of ways of work and the multitude of opportunities to transform our lives: work can be one of the activities that we do rather than a necessity.”
As I said, Coulson-Thomas is a difficult thinker to summarise, but a remark he made at the start of our interview will serve as well as anything.
When he arrived I’d lapsed into staring out of the window, and apologised for daydreaming: “No, it’s good,” he said: “People should do more of it – instead of rushing around wrecking their companies.”