Leading by a neck

How to respond to a challenge such as disarming a bomb? Roger Trapp considers the latest ideas ...

On the face of it, The Book That's Sweeping America! looks a fairly run-of-the-mill business tome. The title is only slightly more outrageous than most of those given to volumes purporting to offer new truths about management. And while some of the recommendations verge on the shocking, they are not obviously more outlandish than other prescriptions served up by gurus.

After all, it may be grotesque to send key executives on bomb-disposal exercises, with a view to giving them a first-hand view of crisis management, or to put them in charge of a large ship and require them to encounter icebergs and other obstacles designed to simulate business challenges, or to get them to push marshmallows across a bed of coals as an aid to understanding the product development process - but they are not that dissimilar from many of the indignities that managers have been urged to undergo over the years.

Were it not for the fact that the name of the author, Stephen Michael Peter Thomas, looks suspiciously like an amalgam of the first names of some of the best-selling gurus of recent years - and the fact that the publication date was 1 April - one could almost be forgiven for taking it seriously. Last week, John Wiley, a US-based publisher normally known for serious, academic-type tomes, was playing it straight, with a spokesman claiming that the unusual Tuesday publication date had been chosen simply to avoid a clash with Easter.

The break with tradition did not end there, though. Management books usually arrive in Britain on a tide of acclaim from across the Atlantic. But, despite its title, this one has not already swept America. John Wiley said it had printed 55,000 copies in preparation for a simultaneous worldwide publication.

It is great fun, with the publisher admitting that the training techniques have been criticised by some people for their brutality, but adding that "leading corporations who have undertaken them believe that the leaner, fitter and smaller management team that emerges at the end is both more cost effective and powerful".

Moreover, it achieves the much-sought-after cross-over appeal, by explaining how the the methods detailed need not be confined to the business world.

One section of the book - subtitled "Why I Love Business" - describes how to adapt the recently in-vogue concept known as business process re- engineering, for use in the home. The domestic process re-engineering programme undertaken by the Glinster family particularly deals with children's bedtime, on the grounds that an analysis showed that this was by some margin the biggest consumer of time. Mr Thomas describes how an activity that typically takes 21 steps and 37 minutes can be reduced to just four steps taking three minutes: "a productivity improvement of some 900 per cent".

There is some sending up of the lifestyles of the gurus, as well, with the blurb gushing that "the world's No 1 business guru"and author of Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better includes a corporate jet and personal submarine in his collection of executive toys, plays in a rock band with some of music's biggest names and shares his lavish homes with a beautiful wife and "nine high-achieving children".

It's all a good laugh for people who are deluged with slim collections of meaningless mantras and unfathomable diagrams, yet John Wiley could be on dangerous ground. Indeed, so much nonsense and so many self-evident truths have been published in the name of management science that parody is almost impossible.

Like all the best satire, this book is funny because it is so close to the real thing - and that could mean people not taking other books, published by Wiley and others, as seriously as the publishers would want.

And who's to say whether Mr Thomas's five "learnings" - leadership is hard, communication is important, change is different, people are human, and the future is tomorrow - are any more ridiculous than many other slogans that have captured business's imagination?

Certainly, it is difficult not to be impressed by the candour of the comments, in the publisher's blurb, that Mr Thomas's cutting-edge buzz- words and recycled homilies are "totally free of challenge" and can be employed "with absolutely no fear that they will have any impact whatsoever on your company, your colleagues, or the way you do business"

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