Management Fads Again

This past week I've been continuing with researching and writing chapter eight of my forthcoming book. As I said last week, it's on management fads and fashions, and it's been an interesting foray into my prejudices and experiences, the academic theory on the topic, and the popular writing about fads.

At this point I'm pondering all the information and trying to get it into a manageable format that will engage readers. Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, all about 'that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire' has the engagement factor down pat. I started to re-read bits of his book, looking for the nuggets that I remembered from my first reading of it. Of course, that rather side-tracked me as I drifted off into remembering my own teenage years consorting with people wearing Hush Puppies (one of the fads he discusses) the first time they were a fashion fad.

There's a lot about management fads that has caused me to think more carefully about them. The term itself 'management fad' is rather dismissive as if something that is by many definitions (and there are lots) transitory, but enthusiastically pursued cannot be of value. Scott Adams in his book The Dilbert Principle: A Cubicle's-Eye View of Bosses, Meetings, Management Fads & Other Workplace Afflictions illustrates the classic managerial response to the next big thing, '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', and consultants take the rap "Consultants will ultimately recommend that you do whatever you're not doing now. Centralize whatever is decentralized. Flatten whatever is vertical. … And consultants will rarely deal with the root cause of your company's problems, since that's probably the person who hired them.'

Nevertheless the weariness that greets 'another initiative' might be missing the point that fads are also about learning, innovation, progress, and change. Even if they don't yield expected results they do something. I remember in 2009 working for a company and suggesting that we allow engineers to communicate to each other via Twitter. I was firmly put in my place by the manager I was working for who a) had never heard of Twitter and b) said that even if he had it wasn't for them. An analyst commenting on Twitter, also in 2009 said much the same thing:

'Twitter — it's fun and useful finding out what friends, coworkers, and industry big-shots are reading and thinking. … But Twitter is still a fad, and according to a [recent] study, it looks like its popularity may soon fade.'

But three years later 'Twitter has become the pulse of a planet wide news organism, hosting the dialogue about everything from the Arab Spring to celebrity deaths'

Now look at the list below of things that have been described as fads. For those which you haven't adopted in your company ask the following questions:

How would you know whether to invest in it?
What criteria would you judge your potential investment by?
And will you be ok with the outcome if it turns out to be a flash in the pan that doesn't yield the expected results?

For those fads that you have adopted in some form or other answer these questions:

Why were they adopted?
What lifespan do you think they'll have?
How are you reviewing their value and at what intervals?
What evidence do you have that they are achieving what you wanted them to achieve?

Feel free to add to this list (and I'd love to have your additions). And if some of the items on the list are a mystery to you what would you do to find out more about them in order to answer the first set of questions?

  • B corps.
  • Behavioral analytics
  • Big data
  • Biomimicry
  • Clean tech
  • Collaborative work spaces
  • Cradle to cradle
  • Crowdsourcing
  • Design thinking
  • Gamification
  • Green jobs
  • Happiness, positive psychology, emotion as an investment category
  • Neuro (marketing, economics …)
  • No offices/hoteling
  • Outsourcing
  • Post PC era
  • Prediction markets
  • Results only work environment
  • Self-managed teams/erosion of hierarchy/end of leadership
  • Social advertising
  • Social media
  • Sustainability
  • Virtual and remote working

After two weeks of work on the topic of management fads I'm thinking that they are not to be dismissed, but to be examined, thought through, and learned from. The piece I'm tackling now on them is the relationship between the supply and demand side of the fads. Where do they come from? Why? What is the relationship between the seller – usually the maligned consultant, and the buyer – the apparently long suffering manager? Clearly there is some form of collusion there. How long is a fad a fad before becoming either mainstream or dying? Some academics suggest that fads are adopted for a combination of socio-psychological and techno-economic reasons both internal and external to organizations and it seems that the adoption of Twitter for organizational use (a sample of one, I agree) falls into that thinking.

One way of deciding about whether or not to adopt a fad is to consider it as a field experiment. So in the case of determining whether, for example, to adopt Twitter for your organization you could follow the scientific method:

1. Make observations (about Twitter use in the general population and other organizations)
2. Formulate a hypothesis (about how will benefit or work in your organization)
3. Design and conduct an experiment to test the hypothesis – this is the part that is often missed out in organizations. There is no pilot test, just a blanket 'let's adopt this'.
4. Evaluate the results of the experiment – this is another step that is often left out in organizations.
5. Accept or reject the hypothesis
6. If necessary, make and test a new hypothesis.

Thus in the course of the time I've been working on this chapter I've ceased to think that fads are a necessary evil, and am on the verge of thinking they are a necessary good. We can learn from them, progress through them – even if not in the expected way, and ultimately, for the failed ones, laugh at our folly in thinking they would be worth the investment, and for the successful ones congratulate ourselves on our prescience. And remember that adoption of a fad is likely to affect the design of your organization.

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