Braving the instant answers

In an era of management fads, here is a guide to wise decision- making.
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The Independent Online
Eileen Shapiro is hardly the first person to realise that the management game can be a racket. Too many consultants with their minds on uninterrupted growth curves, preying on too many business executives lacking minds of their own, have long created an environment of quick fixes that in the end do nobody any good.

Indeed, the term "management fad" - which indicates the extent to which this year's "vital tool" is next year's "passing fashion" - has been around for quite a while, and some time ago Richard Pascale, a noted business author and consultant, published a chart plotting the shelf lives of some of the best known fads.

But what makes Ms Shapiro's attack powerful is its humour and its timeliness. The humour is present throughout its more than 250 pages. Where the typical management book sees the leaden prose broken up by undecipherable graphs or two-by-two matrix diagrams, hers is a lively read made more enjoyable by pithy quotes in the margins, a good many jokes and a "dictionary of business basics". Just looking at the As and Bs produces such gems as this definition of accountability: "A characteristic of which everyone else in the organisation needs far more. Not to be confused with `authority', which is what I need more of", and this alternative explanation of benchmarking: "The basis for great jobs in which the incumbents have no substantive responsibilities other than to gallivant around the world, meeting all sorts of interesting people, make occasional proclamations about all the neat things other companies do, and submit appropriately lavish expense reports".

The book, Fad Surfing In the Boardroom (Capstone, pounds 15.99), is coming out in Britain at just the right moment, because managers are being confronted by ever more solutions to problems that seem to mount by the day. These hapless folk probably realise that quick fixes do not work, but they are apt to give in because their situations seem to change so often that no other form of solution will do.

Now president of her own small, Boston-based consultancy, Ms Shapiro is a graduate of the tough school known as the strategy consultancy McKinsey & Co. So she knows what she is talking about.

And it is her considered view that business needs its managers - in the words of her book's subtitle - to "reclaim the courage to manage in the age of instant answers". Her argument is clearly set out in the book's conclusion. Likening management to being a pilot, she says that it is about "assessing situations, setting an overall course or focus, thinking through options, developing plans, taking action, learning, modifying plans, learning more and continuing to go forward".

But, stressing that none of this is new, she adds that what is different now is "the sheer number of techniques proposed for meeting these needs - and positioned, in many cases, as panaceas that obviate the need to think as long as the formula is followed. And because there are so many programmes, so positively marketed, the temptation to operate on autopilot is ever-present."

The danger in all this is not just that managers lose the confidence to make their own decisions, and so fall for help on the seemingly ever- present consultants. It is that organisations become paralysed by a succession of initiatives - some of which might be powerful if properly targeted and supported. Instead, such an approach tends to engender the type of cynicism implicit in the North American experience of "Bohica" - "bend over, here it comes again" - syndrome.

Consultants - for all their protestations about changing their methods of working, and moving from delivering reports and telling executives what to do to sitting alongside clients and getting them to take responsibility for initiatives - have little interest in changing the way of doing things. They can always find something in a client's situation that is sufficiently analogous to something else they have done, to enable them to brush down that technique for reuse. But managers have a choice, suggests Ms Shapiro. They can either slavishly follow the gurus - who are so taking over life that even some of the zanier ones win audiences with the president of the United States - or they can retake control of business.

And doing that does not mean ignoring all the fads. Even such demeaned techniques as Total Quality and Business Process Re-Engineering have a role, provided they are either sufficiently well focused or, in certain cases, applied across the organisation.

The key, she adds, is to "review the fads that may provide you with new insights, learn from them, adapt them as seems appropriate in your best judgement, and then accept with enthusiasm the risks that are part and parcel of the courage to manage - to think, experiment and learn"n