Management Fads and Trends

On Sunday, March 11, yesterday, I started to write the final chapter of my new book. It's a great relief to see the index hoving into view after six months of sitting here at my laptop – the post PC era has overtaken me while I've been writing. If the post PC era has also overtaken you for the moment you can listen to Vinod Khosla, a venture capitalist, talking about this in a TechCrunch interview. As soon as I finish the book I'll have to ditch my PC and get whatever the post PC era item is. Or will I be succumbing to a mere fad if I do that?

How do I know whether the post-PC era statements are a fad or a trend? What is the difference? You'll be able to find out when the book is published at the end of the year, because management fads and trends are the topic of Chapter 8 – the one I've spent the last day and a half working on. Well, some of the time I haven't been directly working on it. I've been 'researching' the various management jargon generators seeing if I can come up with a management fad of my own. The generators are great fun and there are lots of them. Just type into your search bar 'management jargon generator' and you'll get a list of them. Then you can spend quite a while feeling amused at things like "This is no time to bite the bullet with our parallel incremental contingencies" or "Our exploratory research points to knowledge-based management alignment," at least I felt amused until I then cast a critical eye over what I had written in the chapter and decided to go and get a cup of tea.

How do I know whether the post-PC era statements are a fad or a trend? What is the difference? You'll be able to find out when the book is published at the end of the year, because management fads and trends are the topic of Chapter 8 – the one I've spent the last day and a half working on. Well, some of the time I haven't been directly working on it. I've been 'researching' the various management jargon generators seeing if I can come up with a management fad of my own. The generators are great fun and there are lots of them. Just type into your search bar 'management jargon generator' and you'll get a list of them. Then you can spend quite a while feeling amused at things like "This is no time to bite the bullet with our parallel incremental contingencies" or "Our exploratory research points to knowledge-based management alignment," at least I felt amused until I then cast a critical eye over what I had written in the chapter and decided to go and get a cup of tea.

So back to the difference between a fad and a trend. According to the American College of Sports Medicine – who publish an annual survey on fitness trends, a trend is 'a general development or change in a situation or in the way that people are behaving', so in a trends survey it would be totally expected to see the same trends appearing for multiple years because the definition includes the phrase 'general development' as opposed to 'a fashion that is taken up with great enthusiasm for a brief period,' which is the definition of a fad.

You may, or may not be glad to hear that as far as fitness trends and fads go 'out of the top 20 were balance training, Pilates, and stability ball (or Swiss Ball). These three potential trends had shown remarkable strength in past years. Pilates was no. 9 on the list as recent as 2010 and appeared also as no. 7 in 2008 and 2009. Although Pilates had all of the characteristics of a trend in the industry, it may now be thought of as a fad (as supported by this current trend analysis)'. But Zumba has made it into the top 20. On this, the lead survey manager said, "While Zumba has experienced a rapid surge in popularity in the past year, future surveys will indicate if Zumba is truly a trend or simply a fad."

Sadly, this type of trend/fad survey does not exist for perplexed managers wondering whether what they are planning to make an investment decision about is a fad or a trend. Who is to know whether brainstorming, corporate social responsibility, customer relationship management, delayering, double-loop learning, empowerment, lean, learning organization, matrix management, outsourcing, process improvement, project management, quality circles, six sigma, succession planning, sustainability, total quality management, vertical integration and/or zero-based budgeting are trends to follow and worth the investment in, or fads to put in the bucket and forget about because they will not achieve what was expected from them?

Mulling this over I went back to re-read the recent Jonah Lehrer article in the New Yorker? It was called 'Groupthink: the brainstorming myth' which I found interesting. The punch line sentence is 'In the sixty years since then [1955], if the studies are right, brainstorming has achieved nothing—or, at least, less than would have been achieved by six decades' worth of brainstormers working quietly on their own,' which suggests three things to me

a) Brainstorming began life as a fad.
b) It became a trend and then mainstream (over the 60 years)
c) It has been superseded by research/experience that suggests other methods of idea generation, innovation and creativity might be more effective

So it may be that it is quite legitimate, and perhaps even sensible, to try what seems to be a fad and learn from it and not worry too much if it isn't a trend. One research article I read mentioned two opposing views of fads quoting a manager who stated: 'last year it was quality circles . . . this year it will be zero inventories. The truth is, one more panacea and we will all go nuts.' This researcher (Byrne 1981) felt that fads were counterproductive. 'Their bewildering array represented a serious distraction from the complex task of running a company'. He likened many modem managers to compulsive dieters, trying the latest craze for a few days, then moving relentlessly on. In contrast another researcher Lee (1971) was positive and congratulated American top management for its willingness to experiment … 'even though many such organisational experiments fail or offer questionable results'. The risks, he admitted, could be quite high. (The full article is called Explaining the Succession of Management Fads, by Andrzej A. Huczynski in The International Journal of Human Resource Management 4:2 May 1993)

So what is a manager to do? Take up the 'flavor of the month'? Or keep his/her head down and ignore the lures of consultants selling the latest seven point plan? If you're a Drucker fan, as I am, his advice is to understand that there are no magic bullets, or simple recipes for success – which is often what a beleaguered manager is looking for. He was of the view that "Thinking is very hard work. And management fashions are a substitute for thinking." What's your view? And if you have any contenders for management fads of 2012 let me know them.

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