Wednesday, June 21, 2020

Business Fundamentalism, One-track Minds and Magic Bullets

Many organizations, and the executives who direct them, suffer from one-track minds: the condition of having a single idea and clinging to it, no matter what. Usually, the idea comes from one of three sources: what the people in charge are most comfortable with, what they think they do best, or what they believe got them where they are today. Whatever the source, the idea is seductive precisely because it seems to have stood the test of practical application. What this attitude leads to is “business fundamentalism”—an attitude as dangerous as the religious and political fundamentalism that inspires terrorists.

The proofs of practical application that business fundamentalists thrust on anyone who questions their faith will have taken place at another time and in another context, maybe far different than current circumstances. Yet these organizations and executives ignore everything that does not fit with their beliefs. They warp today’s reality to match their expectations, often with predictably harmful outcomes. Their faith must not be questioned, whatever the cost. To allow doubt is to undermine their belief in themselves and the revealed truths they have built their careers on.

The same is true of executives fixated on following what is touted—usually by expensive consultants—as “industry best practice.” These ideas are often themselves questionable—best practice is usually whatever some admired company claims it did, regardless of whether that actually contributed to its success. Even if it was the best approach once, the same considerations apply as with all other kinds of business fundamentalism. How long ago was this? Were the circumstances at that time closely similar to today’s context? Are there any significant differences likely to rule out achieving the same success as in the past? It’s also worth checking just how successful these past events were. Organizations, like people, are not immune from talking up their successes and quietly ignoring the negative aspects.

“Magic Bullets”
One of the most powerful contributors to management fundamentalism is the belief in—and search for—“magic bullets.” Magic bullets are techniques or actions that appear to promise quick, painless and certain success. Many are based on copying what is believed to have worked in the past. Others are derived from techniques made popular by academics or gurus. What all have in common is strong face validity, based on stories of their use in practical circumstances. Indeed, many popular management books consist of nothing but examples of past successes, linked to magic bullet generalizations about what caused them.

It doesn’t take long for the authors to discover the companies they so loudly proclaim to be examples of unparalleled excellence have feet of clay. In many cases, organizations featured in such books swiftly exhibit decline, embarrassment and collapse, the magic bullet techniques derived from their former success seem to be immune from criticism. It’s as if people focus only on the earlier “proofs” of practical application, and ignore what happened later. Such selective attention, focusing on what supports belief and ignoring what might undermine it, is typical of fundamentalism. People believe in panaceas because they want to believe, even if subsequent evidence suggest their faith is misplaced.

Tom Hanks’ character in the movie You’ve Got Mail kept saying “It’s not personal, it’s business” whenever he was caught in some dubious business dealing. But what happens at work is intensely personal for the people employed there, especially if it’s going to result in lay-offs, extra work, lower benefits or outsourcing of jobs overseas.

Today’s fundamentalist magic bullets include all of the above, plus an approach to leadership based on arrogance, groupthink, pride, egotism and an unfailing belief in the company’s own PR propaganda. The supposed practical proof that such approaches actually work is all based in the past, sometimes in organizations that no longer exist, or in the repetition of similar ideas throughout the media. But saying something is true, even many times, does not make it so—unless you studiously ignore any contrary evidence and focus only of examples that seem to support your case.

Political Attitudes
Management thinking has become politicized, like so much else in today’s world. To espouse the conventional, conservative, macho management faith is seen as proof of holding correct attitudes: of being a practical manager, a “go-getter” and someone with his or her feet on the ground. To question these beliefs is suspect. It marks you out as a dangerous liberal, an intellectual or an idealist: someone who is infected with unsuitable thoughts and a tendency to “lose touch with business reality.”

In fact, the real idealists and impractical dreamers are those who preserve a narrow, rigidly “correct” outlook based only on the views of people like themselves. We’ve heard and seen all too many examples of the horrific impact of fundamentalists on the world today. Many organizations too are being run by strict fundamentalists, only these hold grimly to fixed business beliefs, not religious ones. All fundamentalists are people with one-track minds. We should be as suspicious of the management variety as we are of those who hold political or religious beliefs that threaten our wider freedoms.

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Aloys Hosman said...

Great piece. Recognizable stuff. One other 'Political Attitude' in my mind is the manager that constructs his ideas and plans such, that he can wriggle his way out of a failure. For example by making certain persons accomplices and pointing the finger to them in case of failure or by saying he warned everybody this (failure) could happen, thus making everybody an accomplice.
The worst for of this kind is getting out (e.g. switching positions) while nobody yet noticed it will become a failure, leaving the pieces to his successor.

12:29 AM  

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