The Daily Deal, August 23, 2000
Judgment Call Management

Office Follies

by Susan Webber

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.