Friday, March 23, 2007

Debunking Management Fads

When I went to college in the late 80s, management fads were in their infancy stage. We cut our teeth on Tom Peters' books "In Search of Excellence" and "Thriving on Chaos", John Naisbitt’s “Megatrends”, and Kenneth Blanchard's "One Minute Manager".

When I taught college in the 1990s, most of those texts had already been replaced by Roger von Oech’s “A Whack on the Side of the Head”, Stephen Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, and there was a resurgent interest in Og Mandino’s “The Greatest Salesman in the World” (originally published in 1968).

Businesses were paying for expensive seminars with Anthony Robbins, who hopped about the stage like a frenzied lab rat being hit with repeated jolts of electricity. Women and minorities were gaining increasing footholds in the workplace. Corporate re-engineering was a hot trend in the early 1990s: Companies started streamlining to save money and "downsizing" came into vogue. Corporate Raiders were hot, employee rights were not. Born from this environment, Michael Douglas starred in the movie “Falling Down” in 1993. This movie was representative of many American workers, who were growing increasingly disenfranchised.

Again, by the turn of the century, we were met with even more theories and buzzwords: Total Quality Management (TQM), Total Productive Management (TPM), Learning Organizations, Team-Based Management, and more.

With the 9/11 attack in 2001, we were introduced to Terror Management Theory (TMT) which states “When humans are faced with their own mortality by random acts of terror, they respond in ways that show their lives have meaning and purpose.” It’s still too early to tell if this may lead to a kinder, gentler workplace, but many businesses have incorporated certain changes as a direct result of those terrorist attacks.


The public is very mercurial with a short attention span. To keep an idea or product new and fresh, it sometimes needs to be repackaged. Despite the fact that most of these authors and gurus would recoil in horror at this revelation, I’ll let you in on a little secret: With some small variations, most of what they tell you is nothing new.

But, these fads get people talking. Ideas that were discarded years ago may be resurrected and discussed, or evolve into something more useful. They create excitement, and excitement itself is of value in many organizations where people fall into stale routines.


Fads tend to polarize people. The people who fervently follow fads and trends seem to fall into two categories. One type is the kind that is always thirsting for knowledge: The Scholar has a genuine desire to better herself and her work environment, and she’s willing to do the work needed to achieve that.

But the other type is The Groupie. His interest is shallow, at best. He is just like the old lady at the checkout counter who is almost fidgeting with impatience to get the latest issue of The National Enquirer. If he can merely pick up a few buzzwords to throw about the office, he is content. If there IS anything new to be learned, you can be sure that he won’t have the ability to utilize it.


Sadly, most employees have grown very resistant to new techniques and theories because they’ve encountered too many Groupies and not enough Scholars.

Let me give you an example: I was a department store manager in the early 1990s when my employer decided to re-title all salespeople. The new title was to be “Associate” because the word “salesperson” was too diminutive. This mere name change was expected to “empower” the Associates. Management had only a vague idea of what this “empowering” was supposed to do, but it was sure that this would result in higher productivity.

The name change was rolled out with great fanfare at a meeting specifically called for that purpose. Associates were told that this was a new era! People arrived as salespeople, but left as Associates!

There was one awkward moment at the meeting, when an older, more cynical Associate asked if there was a pay raise “associated” with the title. There wasn’t. Never the less, the inexperienced salespeople left, excited, while the more experienced salespeople resumed their posts, exhibiting no changes that we could see. Interested, I pulled one of them aside.

“Joy,” I asked, “What was your feeling about the meeting?”

“Same old, same old, hon,” said Joy. “Nothing will change.”

“Isn’t that a little cynical?” I asked, surprised. “You haven’t even given it a chance yet!” (I was very young and naive).

Joy smiled at me mildly, and merely said, “Wait and see.”

Joy was right. Nothing changed. And as time went by, those excited new salespeople became as jaded as their predecessors.

Unless an employee can see a relatively immediate and ongoing change (with results), she won’t have any buy-in to the new ideas. And without employee buy-in, all ideas are bound to fail. This creates a vicious cycle: Ideas that could work are labeled as frivolous, because they were initiated improperly. And that creates a lasting memory, and the unwillingness to try anything new.


Management can be even more resistant because, like the employees, they’ve seen many failures. But unlike their employees, they are the ones that are ultimately responsible.

Most managers feel that they’re in place because they already know how to do their job, and there’s little or no need for change. They resent any implications that they may not be doing their job well.

They grow tired of the young pups coming on to the scene, spouting the latest theories they just learned at college. And, truthfully, most managers have seen or heard such ideas before. Like their employees, if they’ve seen such ideas rolled out by a Groupie, they will be very resistant to any variations of those ideas.


If you are suddenly exposed to a new idea that seems revolutionary; stop, look, and listen:

STOP: Don’t go rushing around your workplace talking about this new idea. Instead, take the time to investigate it. Do your homework. Resist the impulse to jump on the bandwagon before you've met the driver.

LOOK: Read as much as you can about it. Research it on the internet. Ask yourself if it can be utilized in your workplace.

LISTEN: If you have a mentor outside of your workplace, discuss it with her. Ask her if she’s heard anything similar to it, and get her reaction to it. Pick it apart, looking for potential weaknesses. If you’ve taken the first two steps, consider convening a panel of employees and management to get their honest input. If people are consulted before an idea is rolled out, you have a much better chance of “buy-in” if and when it’s implemented. And once the program is rolled out, make sure that you get genuine and regular feedback on its success or failure.

Although the word “fad” has a negative feel to it (think 80s hair and fishnet stockings), it remains a genuine American phenomenon. Presenting and initiating a fad in the workplace can be very challenging. However, as long as we take the scholarly approach, and weigh each idea carefully and with the knowledge that “there’s nothing new under the sun”, we may find approaches we’d not considered before.


Senor Caiman said...


You know I dislike long posts but I read the whole thing. Unfortunatley now I can't remember what the beginning of the post said.

I will say that I passed cynical a long time a go.

But I will tell you I do get somewhat excited when I present old ideas to young people. I know it's BS and won't work but they seem to embrace it and I get more money because people think I'm accomplishing something. Sometimes I feel a little guilty.

Saur♥Kraut said...

Senor, dittos all the way. Some of it isn't BS, but all of it can be learned inexpensively in textbooks or the library. I shudder to see how much money people throw away on seminars! People like Anthony Robbins make oodles of money repackaging old maxims.

Anonymous said...

I'm sick of business fads. You can tell about every 2 years something new will come out. I remember those books you mentioned and how high professors were about reading them in college.

I like your advice, but to add to it, notice the same phenomenon occurs in church's - Prayer of Jabez, Purpose Driven Life, Point Man, Inside Out ... should be another year and we'll get another one after "Your best life now" calms down.


Matt said...

Reminds me of Blue Sky theory.

The Simpsons did a great parody of this "genre" when Homer consulted the book, "Breakfast IS the Prize," which advised him to cut down on eggs to save more room for bacon!

Hans said...


…The Scholar has a genuine desire to better HERSELF and HER work environment, and she’s willing to do the work needed to achieve that.

But the other type is The Groupie. HIS interest is shallow, at best…

There is probably some significance to the gender bias. Wouldn’t you agree Dr. Tucker? I’m sure Dr. Freud would.

Workplaces are constantly evolving and trying to become more efficient. I believe they are and that the statistics regarding productivity would agree with me. Going through these new management schemes is just part of the process. My question is whatever became of ISO9000?

Saur♥Kraut said...

Hans, There is probably some significance to the gender bias. Wouldn’t you agree Dr. Tucker? I’m sure Dr. Freud would.

Oh it was intentional, Hans. I assure you. I believe in challenging the stereotypical gender bias. ;o)

ISO9000: Good reminder! But I have to disagree with you when you wrote Workplaces are constantly evolving and trying to become more efficient. I only wish that were the case.

Matt, I missed that episode! I'll have to see if I can find it on YouTube.

Edge, great minds think alike! I was wondering if I should include anything on the Christian fads, like the Prayer of Jabez, but decided that it would stretch the article to an ungodly length (pun intended).

Hans said...

Saur, it comes across as man bashing but I suppose I have an overly sensitive bias meter.

I’d argue “as a whole” work places are more efficient. But it would take way too much research into average household incomes as adjusted for inflation, dispersion of wealth and number of refrigerators per 1000 people (an actual static used in computing standard of living) and that the increased standard in living is attributable to increased work place efficiency allowing for higher wages and decreased product cost (as adjusted for inflation). But than the discussion would probably devolve into a discussion on quality of life (which is much more subjective) or something like that. Or maybe I’m just talking out of my a** and work places are less efficient.

Cranky Yankee said...

ISO9000 became ISO9001 ..ha ha.

They tried TQM in the military in the early 90's. It was a riot. My job was to sneak into a bad place, blow things up and kill people. The "metrics" in peace time were a hoot. We had a lot of fun with the pencil pushers.

Management fads are a major reason I left the corporate world a few years ago. I worked for a Director in my last company who had a pile of these "Management" books that he never read. I guess he absorbed them through osmosis. I stole his copy of Who Moved My Cheese to see if he would notice. It was deliciously irnoic and we got a kick out of it.

While I wasn't spending my time in the office writing blog comments and shopping on eBay I read the book. It's about change and people's reaction to it. One day in a meeting just to stir things up I decided to indirectly ask him some questions about the book. He didn't have a clue. I think I still have that a box with about 50 dry erase markers. :)

The business world is a cesspool not fit for decent people. These fads are nothing more than a way to make people feel good about it so they can bear the crushing banality of it all.

The Lazy Iguana said...

All these theories are bullshit. I had to learn them all in business school. Bullshit.

Yea it all sounds good on paper, but then again so did the Jim Jones cult. You know, a bunch of hippies living in peace and harmony and crap.

I got into it with a management professor in my senior year. The dolt (who was some sort of top level manager in the company that owns Taco Bell, KFC, and something else) would ask us dumb questions and then would hate my dumb answer.

like the "what is the mission statement for Walt Disney?". I answered "figure out new and creative ways to charge people $4 for a $1 bottle of water". WRONG! It is "the happiest place on Earth", to which I responded "I would be a lot happier if I did not have to pay $4 for a $1 bottle of water".

But what really pissed off the professor was when I openly challenged her and the entire idea of a business degree. She was going off about how "important" it was that we learned all these things (which were very simple concepts really - with a lot of meaningless buzzwords thrown in to make it sound confusing).

So I asked "what business school did Gengis Khan go to? Or Alexander The Great?" When asked what this has to do with anything I gave my answer.

"Those two men conquered their known world. Their "employees" were not only willing to work for these men - they were willing to die for these men. They would follow them into hand to hand combat and face the possibility of a terrible death by evisceration because of what? TQM theory? My point is that you are either born a good leader or you are not. No amount of cute theory can make a bad manager turn into a good manager. You either have people skills - or not. I have never met a manager I would follow into battle. If you have the skills to lead - you will be a good manager. If you suck, then not even a PHD in business will help you. TQM or 6 Sigma is bullshit, a good manager has the respect of employees and that can only come from personality and how you treat others - not from anything you learn in college."

I think the lady still hates me. I know it pissed her off. She took it as an insult or personal attack on her - which it was not. It was an attack on the system, not the people in the system.

The Lazy Iguana said...

PS - I thought you hated all noble gases lighter than air.

Anonymous said...

I somewhat agree with iguana, I think that the reason why so many of these fads actually get attention is because there are so many bad managers out there. A good manager can do her job without these fads but always needs to be looking at ways to improve herself. I am very interested in management because I think I understand it although I will admit there is plenty I need to learn. I don't agree that a natural leader will definitely be a good manager, a natural leader is not the same as a natural manager. I had a friend that I coached on managing, I was able to help him realize the differences between the two. I am a natural leader due to my quest for knowledge but I am a natural manager because I understand how to work with my employees, how to gain their respect and to draw the line between an effective employee and someone that needs to be let go.
Saur, I find it funny that you mention talking to an outside mentor, I am still beginning in my career and have thought multiple times that you would be a great mentor for me. Thank you for this post, it was something I enjoyed reading about, although in general I too think management fads are a bunch of bs.


Three Score and Ten or more said...

Well, shucks, I found Steve Covey's seven habits very useful at one time in my life, and I still believe that a well crafted mission statement can improve most organization (well crafted meaning that the missions statement grows from the bottom up rather from the top down --a really useless growth) Wasn't it Wally world who started the associates rather than salespeople stuff. (They are still using it, much to the amusement of some of the "associates".)

Enjoyed your"diatribe". Truly business fads in general have earned a diatribe or two. (I mis-spent some good years creating and managing "focus groups", a period when I learned that you can get a well crafted focus group to come to any conclusion to which you want them to come, but there is the potential -unless you work in Hollywood for focus groups to provide useful information.)

Saur♥Kraut said...

3 Score & 10, Interesting that you worked with focus groups! I always thought that it might be fun and suspected they were malleable. Did WallyWorld start the term "Associates"? Interesting factoid that I didnt' know!

Ange, you are completely correct about the difference between a natural leader and a natural manager. Excellent insight! And if you want to pursue the mentor-thing, let me know (you have my email addy). I was blessed with an excellent mentor, who I still believe got me to where I am today and I never let him forget it.

Lazy, See Ange's comments on leadership vs. management. It's insightful. Up until the early 1900s, there were no texts or advice on how to be a good manager. Once it was realized that Management could indeed be honed, there were great changes introduced into the modern workplace. However, you also have a point: A good manager is almost always a good leader. And that takes a solid knowlege of management, without focusing on the latest fads.

Cranky, :D I really laughed over your "Who Moved My Cheese" incident. I once had a crappy dictator-manager who made us all read that damned book (again) when he took over our department. It was his not-so-subtle way of telling us that he was not only about to "move our cheese", but he was preparing to eat it, too. Your last paragraph is cynical but, sadly, true for the most part.

Hans, my dear, I truly enjoy your coming by here regularly. I am certainly not a male-basher. Would you accuse people who use the male gender in writing as "woman haters"? I have seen many things in my 25 years in the workplace (I'm 40 y.o.). I've seen it evolve from being unconsciously (or deliberately) sexist to being more accomodating. And unless we challenge certain preconceptions, it won't continue to change as it should.

Who says that men always get to be the good guys? For example, why can women be bitches, whores, and c*nts when traditionally there are no comparable labels for men? The worst label for a man is "bastard", which merely implies that his mother was a whore, but says nothing about his character. However, I now hear men being negatively labelled dicks or f*ckers, so I think you're catching up with us.

But do you see my point?

As for workplaces being more efficient, I think it simply depends on the workplace. Some are streamlined things of beauty, but the majority seem to still be a hodgepodge of bad ideas and poor communication.

Hans said...

I'm still relatively new to reading your work and getting a feel for it. When you pointed out that your gender choices were intentional I accepted that at face value. I acknowledged that it was a “me” issue and not a “you” issue. I am not immune to the fact that my gender, ethnicity, religion and age have presented me with some advantages. For example, I am electable as a Presidential candidate. That is if you ignore the overwhelming lack of charisma and that I did inhale (more than once).

Getting back to the point at hand, I still believe that work places are more efficient. I believe that facts back my argument and that you are mistaking not being perfect with not getting better. I’ve never said that the work place is perfect. I never said they couldn’t be better. I said that they are getting better. Better being defined as more efficient or doing more with less. In general, on average or whatever. Of course there are exceptions.

Now I’ll read today’s post later but it’s 12:30, the chores are done and I’m going to jump on my bicycle and head down to Clearwater Beach (before they move the oil platforms in) to ogle the spring break girls in the creepy way only a 39 yo man desperately hanging on to his youth can do.

Saur♥Kraut said...

Hans, see my comment to you in Saturday's post. ;o)

Anonymous said...

Indeed. Corporations are about one thing: redistribution of wealth to the top. You are never really part of the team. The team is the board of directors and the all the three letter acronym guys (CEO, CFO, CTO, CIO...)

You are a tool. You will get thrown under a bus as soon as one of the actual team has a financial incentive to do so.

As already stated in another comment above, these fads are about creating the illusion that you are part of the team to keep you from walking out the door or blowing your brains out.

Also, offices do not evolve towards something better. Evolution doesn't mean better. Human groups devolve into predictable social constructs that are inherently incompatible with the main corporate goal: Make the rich guys at the top richer. So you need management to prevent this regression from getting too far... And as it happens a new idiot comes out with a such a fad every two years. Seven Habits. Cheese. TQM. ITIL. The persistent "master database" myth... you know the datatabase that will track everything and automate everything...

Whatever keeps you in line.

Also after a merger, you are a fool if you wait around to get laid off. Noone cares about your life or your problems once you get laid off and you have no leverage when you are trying to get a new job.

Wow. I'm bitter... jeez. Time for some coffee.