The Management Myth:
Why the Experts Keep Getting it Wrong
Stewart is a penitent, former management consultant. There is an entire sub-genre of management consulting tell-alls that usually leaves one wondering why such firms persist given how poorly they treat their clients. Stewart’s book avoids being merely an addition to that oeuvre by establishing a context for his critique.
He manages to do that because, unlike far too many scribblers of business-oriented books, Stewart is highly educated. Most consulting firms are populated with holders of MBA degrees who are adept at gathering and playing with data and telling the managers of businesses what it means and what they should do with it. By contrast, Stewart holds a PhD in analytical philosophy.
A fancy credential, especially in an arcane discipline, isn’t necessarily a guarantee that one has learned anything. What all that book-learning should do, I’d hope, is give you some tools. Tools to investigate. Tools to analyze. Tools to communicate. You might think an MBA delivers the same thing, maybe even more so, but I’m not sure it does. The classes I took in the b-school while getting my MS offered a particularly pinched view of the world.
By contrast, Stewart has quite a toolbox and he’s mastered every tool in it, including the proprietary ‘methods’ that consulting firms sell. Consulting firms and ad agencies, the sector I grew up in, have a longstanding love-hate relationship but what they share is a Darwinian ecology. Last longer than a comparatively short while, rise above the first two levels, and it’s as close as you’ll ever get to proof that you’re good at what you do. Stewart made partner in a breakaway, start-up firm.
Stewart offers his thesis, gently, at the outset: “…management is indeed a neglected branch of the humanities, and [that] the study of management belongs, if anywhere, to the history of philosophy.” In principle I agree with Stewart although I would probably substitute social science for humanities and sociology or anthropology for philosophy. But that’s small beer. I think we might both find ourselves paraphrasing Henry Ford: management’s bunk.
Stewart goes so far as to note that the firm he joined conducted an orientation/training program for non-business degree holders like him. The firm conveyed what they considered the most important parts of the MBA curriculum in three weeks–a stunning discount of the schooling that indicates achieving managerial professionalism.
The tale Stewart tells emerges in alternating chapters. One group of chapters tells the tale of his personal journey, the other offers a history of management as a profession and the management consultants who made it so.
I’d almost say it was part tell-all, part history except that as tell-alls go, Stewart’s is distinctly mild. Tales of drunken debauchery are not his style although there is drinking and running up travel, food and lodging expenses aplenty. There’s also lots of silly behavior. But most of it occurs within the consultancies.
Do the clients suffer? They always do but the shenanigans within the firms they hire are the least of it. What are they really paying for? My favorite vignette in the book showcases a senior partner engaging in “two-handed regression.” Confronting the type of scatter plot that typically frustrates analysts, an array of widely scattered data points indicating no clear differences or correlations, he smashes two hands down on the graph revealing the “straight line hiding from conventional mathematics.” (p. 62) Amusing and practical but not really the rocket science clients think they’re buying.
Where Stewart provides his greatest service is in the historical overview. There is no creature on earth more afeared of history than the American businessman or woman. I’ve met hundreds of people who don’t know the first bit about the history of their own business let alone the ones they’re going to fix or make money from. There’s a reason there’s a business cycle and I submit it might have as much to do with human behavior as some mystical law of economics.
The ugly truth about management consultants is all here. Frederick Winslow Taylor and his doctored data which, in any event, were never shared with the client. The Hawthorn effect and the absolutely shoddy methodology behind it. The McKinseys and the Bains and on and on. It’s a frightening litany and makes you wonder what good, if any, has come of it.
None of this is new information and you’d think the clients might be aware. But they aren’t and it’s more profitable to reinvent the wheel endlessly than to make things better once and for all.