Nuggets of wisdom or fool's gold?

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The Independent Online
Whether it is the fault of managers seeking quick fixes to their problems or of gurus and their publishers offering instant solutions is not clear - and does not really matter. But there is a dangerous force at work here - and at a time when the quickening pace of change can relegate today's exemplar of success into tomorrow's basket case, it is likely to get even worse.

The modern business world is so competitive that organisations of all sizes and sorts are apparently convinced that they must find and implement new techniques and approaches as rapidly as possible. The trouble is, few of these methodologies are as fresh as they claim to be.

Sure, flashes of inspiration can quickly develop into major forces, as we have seen with the revolutions in customer service and quality. And nothing shows the power of one idea better than the sudden passion for business process re-engineering. This, of course, became the wellspring of downsizing and the other over-zealous forms of cost-cutting which many firms are still struggling to come to terms with today.

But though business is not always as complex as consultants in particular like to make out, it is also often a little less simple than gurus would have it. Consequently, we should treat with a fair degree of caution those who claim to have discovered the holy grail.

This is not to say there is nothing worth while about two books that have just appeared: Andrew Brown's The Six Dimensions of Leadership and First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman.

As their titles suggest, both books are provocative and entertaining. All sensible executives agree that they are less than all-knowing. That is why so many consultancies can claim to be working with the same companies; the best organisations are constantly on the look-out for fresh insights and perspectives.

Of course, the trick they have to perform is not to follow what they find out too slavishly. That is how fads develop and are quickly eclipsed. Managers should listen to the gurus with the aim of discovering nuggets of truth rather than detailed action plans.

A manager who has spent a train journey trying to decide whether he is, according to Mr Brown's breakdown, a "convincing hero", "consummate actor" or "willing victim" will do a great service to himself and his organisation if he better understands why he manages as he does. But the effect will be somewhat less powerful if he announces to his team that everybody must read the book and decide by the end of the week into which of the six categories they fall.

Equally, people who read First, Break All the Rules will not do a lot of good if they take the title literally. But if their thinking is challenged in such areas as employee motivation, that would be a different story.

The message to all executives returning from their holidays fired up and ready for action may appear dull, but it could be more powerful than lots of action. Be unstinting in the search for knowledge, but do not be too ready to be converted.