April 9, 2013 3:58 pm

Where others failed: Top 10 fads

Harder, by far, than picking the best management ideas of all time is picking the worst. I can think of no other area of expertise to which the word “fad” attaches itself so naturally. No one talks much of economics fads, or accounting fads, but there is something about the word “management” that means the word “fad” is never far away.

In the 20 years that I have been writing about these things, I have seen so many come and go that whittling the list down to the 10 most dismal, most damaging or most daft management fads of all time has been exceptionally challenging.

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Lucy Kellaway

However, here are the ones that, in my view, merit inclusion. The list is in no particular order.

1) Emotional Intelligence. This idea, made popular by Daniel Goleman in 1995 and still very much in vogue almost 20 years later, says that people who can empathise with others do better. It is a heartwarming theory and it would be awfully nice if the world were like this. Alas, the most cursory look around any normal-ish enterprise should be enough to assure us it isn’t. The longevity of this fad tells us a great deal about the power of wishful thinking.

2) Management by Walking Around. This was invented at Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s and then much favoured by the great guru, Tom Peters. I suppose I can vaguely see the point of it, if the alternative is having managers who never poke their noses out of their offices. However, to expect constant wandering around to have any important effect on anything – apart from paranoia levels of staff and the shoe leather of managers – strikes me as gloriously wrong-headed.

3) Six Sigma. This one is so complicated and contains so many tricky equations that it can only be understood by the most expensive and highly specialised management consultants. As far as I can understand it, Six Sigma is all about isolating and eliminating the causes of defects. There is nothing wrong with that in itself; it makes perfect sense. What is wrong, however, apart from the over-complication of it all, is the fad’s pretentious paraphernalia involving managers becoming “black belts” and “green belts”. It was made big in the mid-1980s at Motorola, but other companies that enthusiastically espoused it quickly became bogged down in endless meetings and found they increasingly had trouble distinguishing wood from trees. It didn’t help their bottom lines either: there was one study that showed the companies that espoused it most religiously trailed the S&P 500 index most markedly.

4) Core Competency. This was an ugly term for something blindingly obvious: that companies ought to concentrate on doing things that they are good at. It is a great idea in theory. But it has two flaws that can make it very dangerous. First, companies often don’t have the first idea what they are good at. And second, there is no point in being good at something if the world doesn’t want it any more. Think of Kodak.

5) There is no “I” in Team. The teamwork obsession started about 20 years ago and is still very much alive. In real life, work is not done by teams, it is done by individuals, a word that does, indeed, contain not one, but three, “I”s.

6) Embracing Mistakes. This is also a fad that was introduced about a decade ago, and is currently at peak popularity. The idea is that only by making mistakes do we learn, and that therefore people should be encouraged to make lots of them. This is one of the nuttiest ideas of all. Excessive fear of getting things wrong can be paralysing, but moderate fear is surely healthy and necessary as it helps ensure that most of the time we get things broadly right.

7) Business Process Re-engineering. This was the craze of the early 1990s, touted by various people including engineer and business writer Michael Hammer. It was all about businesses tearing up their old ways of doing things to make them more efficient. Actually what it turned out to be about was giving lots of work to management consultants, and then firing half the workforce. Thus it got a very bad name and mercifully fell out of fashion.

8) Fun by fiat. Actually it wasn’t really called that. But my name exposes the ridiculous insistence by managers that workers will be more productive if there is a playground slide in reception. The idea originated from two shaven-headed Swedes, Kjell Nordström and Jonas Ridderstråle, who in 2000 wrote a book called Funky Business espousing coolness as competitive advantage. Some internet companies still appear to believe in the doctrine, but it can only be a matter of time.

9) Matrix Management. This became big in the 1980s and was possibly the worst way of organising people that anyone has yet come up with. It meant that people with a speciality were all bundled together and then parcelled out ad hoc to work on different projects. The upshot was that everyone had several different bosses and it made office life one long turf battle.

10) Authentic Leadership. Or the idea that everyone must be true to themselves. This idea is not only unspecific, it is sentimental and unrealistic – the whole point of being a manager is that we get to be someone else. However, I was amused to read a very pertinent line on a coaching website: “Authenticity isn’t a fad – it’s a solution.”

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