As FT colunmist Lucy Kellaway demonstrates, no new business
technique is too ridiculous to be put into practice
We Americans take pride in our tradition of free speech and open debate.
Yet we seem all too easily cowed by so-called experts, particularly
management experts, even when what they preach is either old hat or
of dubious value.
So it is no surprise that it takes a Brit like Lucy Kellaway to dissect
much of the foolishness marketed as new business techniques. Kellaway,
in "Sense and Nonsense in the Office: No Theories, No Flow Charts,
No Big Words," makes no pretense of offering solutions to thorny
management issues. This book, distilled from her weekly Financial Times
columns on management, serves up her prejudices.
And why should they be of interest? As she explains, "In my experience,
prejudices make for good reading. They either confirm your own, or make
you cross, either of which is better than nothing in these bland times."
So if your taste runs to the subversive, if you enjoy Dilbert or listen
to Bob Grant or Dr. Laura Schlessinger to raise your adrenaline level,
you are likely to find this work entertaining.
Kellaway's appeal isn't merely that she takes on Tom Peters or Tony
Robbins they are far too easy targets but that she demolishes
them elegantly, brutally, and in short order. Her book is the written
equivalent of a fight in an action movie, where the protagonist flattens
his opponents with a few well aimed blows.
She also seems to have no favorites. She pounces on everything from
language inflation (such as the much abused "passion" and
"delighting customers"), overly familiar customer service,
daffy training courses, and upon occasion management at
her employer, Pearson plc. It is surprising how often hapless consultants
and authors, presumably knowing her distaste for cant, send her material
guaranteed to elicit her ridicule.
Yet Kellaway is no knee-jerk critic. She is quick to praise Prince
Phillip, not the most popular royal, for a pithy discussion of leadership,
and Lord Weinstock of GEC, a fellow curmudgeon and consultant-basher.
She is a fan of power naps, duvet days (for those too cranky to get
out of bed) and smoking rooms (far more dignified than huddling outside).
Admittedly, her tastes are conservative. She favors dress codes and
is skeptical of caring management: "People like security. They
like to be told what to do. Empowerment and flat structures are overrated."
Of course, one can find fault with her book. It is a quick read, clearly
cobbled together from her columns. Subjects related to fads , such as
"management consultants" and "training courses"
are near the beginning, while those focusing on office life, such as
"men and women" and "office design", come later.
This structure, unfortunately, puts her more acerbic pieces together,
up front, making her seem harsh, while her columns vary week-to-week
in subject matter and tone.
For example, she sometimes pokes fun at a management technique by
trying it out on her family, casting herself as the chief executive,
her husband as the non-executive director, and her brood as her team.
But most of these pieces are now in a section called, "Managing
at Home". Grouping them dissipates their leavening effect.
After reading through the seemingly endless supply of nostrums served
up by the management help industry, it's hard not to sympathize with
Kellaway's viewpoint. As she demonstrates, no idea is too ridiculous
to be put into practice
She describes The WalkŁ, a seven-week course devised by a failed stand-up
comedian, in which the participants, under close supervision, walk themselves
into exhaustion. She proposes The SleepŁ, only to have readers inquire
where the course will be offered.
One wonders why managers, paid to be decisive and tough-minded, fall
prey to panaceas. Kellaway argues that, "both managers and teenagers
inhabit worlds in which they are outcasts if they are not doing the
same as everyone else." Psychologists would agree, citing the coercive
power of social approval. Yet there must be some reason that the management
advice industry has not collapsed under its own mediocrity.
One possible explanation of why bad advice may have some value is
the Hawthorne Effect. In the 1930s, engineers in Hawthorne, Ill., conducted
experiments to improve the productivity of a light bulb factory. They
changed the speed of the line, increased the lighting, changed wall
colors. They found with each change, output increased. They began to
suspect their findings when they reduced the lighting to the original
level and production again went up. They realized that the particulars
of the changes were irrelevant; the increased attention inspired the
laborers to work harder.
So if the net effect of any new business device is that management
pays more notice to the troops, the attention alone will make for more
productive employees. Thus, the more puffery and the less substance
in a new fad, the better, since it makes clear that you are getting
a pure placebo.