We've all seen them in airport departure lounges and bookshops – colorful books with even more colorful titles that promise easy solutions to all manner of management problems. And since managers are busy people with huge demands on their time these books sell like 'hot cakes,' becoming overnight best sellers and giving their authors 'guru status' in the world of management consulting.
But beware, there's bad news: quick and simple solutions are often wrong because they fail to take into account the complexity of the organization system, the people involved and situation. As Einstein said "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."
Behavior in organizations is complex because human animals are complex. Our ability to make predictions about the way different people will respond in different situations is limited. Generalizations are exactly that – generalizations. Organizations that attempt to apply simple solutions to complex issues are more likely than not destined for failure. This does not mean that we can not make reasonably accurate predictions about behavior but we must take into account the situation we find ourselves in. Just imagine how you yourself have in different situations: a meal with friends compared to a meeting with your child's school teacher! What works for one organization in one situation may not be suitable for your organization.
Consider the book "In Search of Excellence" written by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr., first published in 1982. The two authors identified eight themes that they suggested were found in 'excellent companies'.
1. A bias for action, active decision making
2. Close to the customer
3. Autonomy and entrepreneurship
4. Productivity through people
5. Hands-on, value-driven
6. Stick to the knitting
7. Simple form, lean staff
8. Simultaneous loose-tight properties
The obvious message for the reader was to "do the same". However, as Business Week pointed out, one-third of the original 42 "excellent companies" were in financial difficulties within five years of being surveyed. This does not mean that the themes are wrong it – and, indeed, they intuitively appear to be correct. But it does mean that an organization that simply applies the themes rather than processes the ideas behind the themes, adjusting these ideas to fit their own unique situation, will only achieve a limited benefit. And, as importantly, the themes or ideas must be reinforced over time or adapted to fit a changing environment as the surveyed companies found out.
Popular books are often fun to read but can be of little benefit. To improve your chances of gaining a benefit when reading a management help book you need to ask yourself a few basic questions. For example, has the author taken out intensive research to support his or her theories? Does a solution that produced amazing results in one company apply to your company, your industry or even your country? And so on. Following the ideas of an author may improve the chances of success in your organization but is not a recipe for success in itself. Be wary of authors that promise quick-fix solutions – you know that they may "move your cheese" but they will not need to resolve the problem.