Sunday, February 8, 2009

Management Fads - Things You Should Know

Organizations love the newest buzz words and fads, particularly management fads, but there are some real costs to bandwagon jumping, even when the ideas involved in the newly adopted fad are sound. Pursuing management quick fixed is problematic.

It may be my imagination, but it seems to me that we are being increasingly inundated with new management buzz words, and fads.

We've had:

. One-Minute Management
. Total Quality Management
. Learning Organizations
. Peak Performance
. Excellence
. Chaos
. Matrix Management
. Team-Based Management
. Process Re-engineering

just to name a few. As a management consultant, it is indeed a challenge to keep up, and quite frankly, I don't know how busy managers have a hope of understanding and using these notions to make their organizations better.

But the question is, are these management approaches useful for more than sounding good at the annual manager's meeting or conference? Or impressing the boss at lunch? Do they actually contribute to organizational effectiveness and quality of work- life? It depends.

One thing is sure, a good many of us are influenced by the buzzwords and trends, so it is worth looking at the phenomenon of management fads.


Many people look at the word fad in a negative light, as if it describes something of little value, something that will have it's fifteen minutes in the spotlight and pass away with little notice when people realize that the approach never fulfills its promise. Like the Pet Rock, or the Hula Hoop. Once people get bored with the novelty, and realize there is lack of substance, the product disappears.

Management fads are a bit different. Generally, new buzzwords and ideas about management do have substance. Most management techniques that become popular have the potential for improving organizations. After all, most people aren't stupid.

But management fads generally are associated with top-notch marketing that helps create interest in the ideas. Almost every major management fad has, associated with it, one or several spokespeople who have the capability of communicating with great vigour and enthusiasm. Tom Peters made "excellence" a buzzword; Ken Blanchard popularized One-Minute Management; and TQM has Deming, Juran and Crosby to spread the word. It seems that the more popular the proponent, the more well-known the management technique becomes. So, we might note that marketing is a crucial aspect of creating management fads. Without these high profile proponents we would have remarkably few management buzzwords, and a much more boring management world.

Positive Effects of Management Fads

Perhaps one of the more positive effects of management fads is that they provoke thought and discussion. At least in some quarters. Because management fads do usually have substance, those who take the time to explore the possibilities usually come away from the experience as better managers. Those who do not take the time to learn, but adopt a management approach on only a superficial understanding of the techniques, become worse managers.

Second, management fads help produce change in the workplace, by encouraging organizations to question their existing approaches, and re-align them to fit the changing world. They highlight the idea that we CAN and SHOULD be looking for better ways to do things, rather than ride on management orthodoxy that is past its time.

Third, management fads create excitement. Since the proponents of management fads are almost always powerful speakers and writers, many who come in contact with them come away energized and motivated at the prospects of better ways of doing things.

Finally, if management techniques did not become popularized, most of us would never hear of them, since they would end up described only in journals on management with limited readership.

All of these are good things.

Negative Effects of Management Fads

The nature of popularized management approaches or fads is that they attract two kinds of people. First, they attract those that have a keen interest in management issues, and have the time, inclination and commitment to understand the techniques and approaches in their entirety. These are the people that can actually apply the approach and prosper. But the second type of person is attracted to the management approach because it is popular, or, on the surface, it makes sense. And, almost all fads have superficial appeal. These folks gather up enough of the key buzzwords to fling around and sound intelligent, but when it comes to making the approach work, do not have the depth of understanding to be able to apply it to a real workplace.

So what happens?


Typically what happens is that the person who embraces a popular management approach without adequate understanding creates a good deal of heat, but very little light. If the person has sufficient power in an organization, he or she can create great amounts of activity with respect to the "new initiative". For example, countless teams may be created, new statistics generated, and employees can be seen carrying around charts and huddled together in empowered work teams. And the initiator of the new order can sit back and watch all this and pronounce that based on the activity levels the initiative is succeeding. Until of course, cold reality sets in and people realize that productivity drops, morale drops, and other problems emerge.

So, the primary problem with management fads is that people latch on to them, surge forward without adequate understanding, waste huge amounts of effort, and create no new value for that effort.

And of course, this often results in throwing the baby out with the bath water. After some period of flurried activity, the organization gives up, and throws out the initiative all together. In particularly bad cases, a new fad will be embraced, and the cycle will begin anew. We must note, however, that this may not be associated with the ideas of the management approach being faulty, but is a result of poor implementation, lack of real commitment, resources and patience. It is a people problem rather than poor models.

Apart from the wasted effort and money that goes into these initiatives, there is a more serious problem. Initiatives poorly implemented result in increased cynicism. Every failed implementation of a management approach results in making future improvement more difficult. After several of these failures, nobody pays much attention anymore. Where initially, introduction of new approaches created enthusiasm and excitement, organizations that fail and move on to the next fad create the exact opposite--employees who are blase and determined to wait out management, because they know that all they need do is hang in there long enough and either the initiating person will move on, or change his or her mind.

If you doubt that this occurs, you may want to try a little experiment. Whenever possible use the phrase "Our employees are our most valued resource". Trumpet it where ever you go and whenever you have the opportunity. Stick it on every wall. And, even believe in it. Then watch the reactions you get. Employees will compare the words with actions, both past and present, and will see that this phrase means nothing except a sincere belief. Employees will still get layed-off, workload will still increase, and pay will still be frozen or rolled back.

Employees compare the rhetoric about new ways of doing things with what they see. When what they see does not match up with the rhetoric, as is often the case with poor implementations, they react, at best, with cynicism, and at worst, with anger and frustration. The rhetoric of new things creates a set of expectations and when you frustrate these expectations you end up worse off than if you had stuck with the status quo.

So, management fads have the effect of creating a cynicism that can become so strong that the organization can make no progress at all.

Management Rejection

Something I have noticed is there is an increasing tendency for managers to reject new management approaches because they have become faddish, or popular. Managers get as tired of "the flavour of the month" as do employees. So there is a potential that valuable management approaches can be rejected out of hand.

Another thing I have noticed is that managers will say things like "Oh, we tried that--didn't work." Often what is implied is that the approach, be it teamwork or TQM is a failure, when the truth is that the management failed to get it to work.

Again, this is unfortunate because significant potential for improvement can be lost.

So, to sum up, when management approaches become popularized or become fads, there is increased risk that managers, in their enthusiasm, will introduce the new approaches without proper preparation or knowledge. The result is that such initiatives usually fail. TQM fails when done this way. Team-based management fails when done this way. Participative management fails this way.

These failures cause two things. They create cynicism in employees, and reduce the credibility of management. Both make future change, even if well implemented, a virtual impossibility.

Second, managers also develop their own cynicism, tend to throw the baby out with the bath water, and shy away from new approaches.

So, What To Do?

We will outline a few suggestions as to how you can introduce popular management techniques into the workplace, so that you avoid the kinds of failures that cause problems.

1. If you come across new ideas that excite you, whether by hearing someone speak or reading a book, do not even consider applying them to your organization without reading and learning more. Don't just read one book on Total Quality Management, read a number of them by different authors. While your initial enthusiasm is important, you must have a good grasp of what you are doing before you start.

Keep in mind that Philip Crosby, one of the TQM gurus, has suggested that he works exclusively with executives and managers for six months to a year before anything is even announced.

2. Keep in mind that any management fad or trend is a tool, pure and simple. And tools are good for achieving certain results, and not so good for creating other results. Before implementing that management approach that excites you, make sure you know WHY you are doing so. If you can't specify measurable results that you expect from the new approach, then don't do it.

3. It is easy to use a new management approach to create the appearance of change, and to increase activity. It is a far different thing to use new approaches to create value or results. Don't be suckered in by activity. If you are introducing a team- based approach, don't gauge your success by the number of team meetings held. Look to the value added by these activities, and weigh the value against the costs.

4. Steer a steady course. Simply put, when you implement a new approach, stick with it. If your data suggests that it isn't working, first examine your own knowledge, and look at HOW it was implemented, before rejecting the whole approach. If you have inadequate patience, you will get into the "flavour of the month" approach. And, each month you will have a new failure, and increased cynicism.

5. Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. If you are clear about the results you expect from the outset, you can evaluate to see if you are spinning your wheels or whether you are gaining ground. Your evaluations must move beyond employee satisfaction, but must include hard, data-based measurements of effectiveness or productivity. Keep in mind that new initiatives will sometimes lower effectiveness during early implementation as people adapt, though, and then yield large gains.

6. Be alert to the possibility that you reject new approaches to management just because you are tired of certain buzzwords, or because the approach has become so popular, it is old hat. Look to the substance of new management approaches, rather than the superficial.


Anonymous said...

Really dam good for management as well as employesss my dear Viktor!

Appreciate you if you could send me more via personnal mail as some of links I m not able to catch!

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