I pretty much always enjoy management writers/gurus when they are dismantling other gurus’ signature achievements. This from Steve Denning is a thoroughly well argued debunking of the whole ghastly “shareholder value” mindset: Can the dumbest idea in the world be saved. No prizes for guessing the answer is no but the whole thing is an inspired well-informed takedown of an all too prevalent management myth.
Sadly, with equal consistency I end up disappointed when they turn from dismantling to putting forward their alternatives. Thus Denning offers “The Key to the Solution”. The “solution” word is usually a red flag for me; it’s a sign of a wicked problem or predicament being reduced to something that can be solved. Denning rejects the idea that businesses have to somehow placate multiple stakeholders (which feels to me close to the messy reality of real world human relationships everywhere). Instead he says this:
The key to solving the dilemma lies, as Richard Straub, President of the Drucker Society Europe, has noted, in the 1973 insight of Peter Drucker: the only valid purpose of a firm is to create a customer. That was true in 1973 and even relevant today when the power in the marketplace has shifted decisively from seller to buyer.
I find this in its own way as simplistic as shareholder value as a sole thing for a business to do. It’s one of those nostrums that can only be true if it’s interpreted so blandly as to be, essentially meaningless. In reality, it seems to me all sorts of businesses start as the slightly crazed idea of individuals, some of which luck out and some of find enough customers to carry on.
Anyway, as with all these slightly zealously argued nostrums, they make out that business and life is simple when it’s usual really complex, rich and challenging.
I have chosen Steve Denning as the most recent example to cross my path but I could have picked many others. I fear that all halfway celebrated management gurus get overattached to their solutions, processes and techniques. You can see it in their tweets admiring the good judgement of those agreeing with them, and their bristling defensiveness in the face of criticism.
I was a bit harsh on twitter in describing Denning arguing the “create a customer” idea and used the word “glib”. In hindsight, I was probably a bit glib myself is saying so. But I notice Denning’s response was to tell me to read the article (as if I hadn’t) and something along the lines of “if necessary all the links”. I don’t know about you but anyone who argues with me by saying “read Wittgenstein” or whatever is pulling a status ploy rather than trying to enlighten me.
Goodness knows I fall in love with various games, activities and processes from time to time. But we should all keep in mind that every single nostrum, process or technique will have unintended, unforeseeable consquences. A shadow if you will. The staff will likely go through the motions of respecting authority for a while, while quietly subverting it behind the scenes until the time comes to directly challenge it.
The nearest I come to overconfident championing of a single solution would be to watch Monty Python’s Life of Brian. And tonight the scene above comes to mind as a good illustration of my point.