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Monday, February 12, 2020

Beware of Management Fashionistas

Fashionista, noun. A dedicated follower of fashion.

Have you noticed that management has become a fashion industry, like Hollywood, the media, politics, and marketing? No one has time today for dull, slow, and boring activities like looking for the truth, testing assumptions, or waiting to see how well anything works. The rush is on to grab at anything that seems to work and use it right away. It's part and parcel of a suicidal trend towards the shortest of short-term thinking in the executive suite.
Following the latest management fashion has several advantages for Hamburger Managers. It looks “hip” and up-to-date. It makes you seem to be innovative, without needing to have a single creative idea in your head. It allows you to look down on anyone not as fashionable as you are. It gives you a new clique to join and a new guru whose words you can parrot. And, best of all, it offers safety in numbers. If it all goes wrong, you certainly won’t be alone. You can then trot out the old excuse that everyone else said it was a great idea, so it seemed sensible to go along.

Fashion setters and followers also help to meet the demand for "something new" in management, when all past approaches seem to fail. Unfortunately, their response is not so much to go back to develop a more fundamental understanding of what has proved unsatisfactory in current methods, but to swiftly take up fresh approaches that differ from the past ones mostly in packaging and presentation. Like fashions in dress, such changes tend to be cyclical and superficial.
Management fashion-setters produce the collective beliefs that certain management techniques are both innovations and improvements relative to the state of the art. These beliefs may be accurate. In such cases, fashion creation involves the invention of a management innovation that is also an improvement over the state of the art in management. Alternatively, the belief that a management technique is either innovative or an improvement may be inaccurate. In such cases, fashion creation may involve either inventing management techniques that only appear to be improvements or rediscovering/reinventing old management techniques that were invented previously and forgotten. [link]

The rise and fall of management fads

Ambitious managers often seize on management fads as a way of demonstrating their “superior know-how” and enhancing their reputation—moving swiftly on to the next fad to avoid falling behind their competition—other, equally superficial and fad-driven players. These managers are often quick to claim solutions to problems that are themselves equally faddish: the problem du jour is approached by the equally instant, fashionable solution. Some of this is, of course, driven by consulting firms seeking to find new ways to sell their time to their clients. But it seems that even internal managers have quickly caught on to the benefits of seeing their careers rise on the crest of some new wave of supposed management expertise that only they, so they claim, are sufficiently up-to-date to understand.

Imitation for imitation’s sake is the essence of fashion

Something sets the fashion and everyone rushes to copy it. The worst sin is to be unfashionable or miss the current trend. “Dated” is a deeply abusive word.

In Hollywood, every successful movie is followed by a slew of pallid imitations. News is indistinguishable from entertainment and “human interest” blots out factual reporting. The same happens in publishing and advertising. Sometimes it looks like a single group of people have designed every TV advert . . . until the fashion changes. Commentators deride last year’s fashions and speculate about what may be the next “big thing.” The meaningless phase “new and improved” appears on any product that’s been on the market for more than six months, maybe three. “Employee Pricing” is followed by “Employee Pricing Plus” . . . and prices stay the same.

In management, look at the rush to benchmarking, comparisons with “industry best practice.” and the way that every public statement contains the same, tired jargon. Values are “in.” Let’s have a mission statement and write it like we’re a charity. Let’s follow political fashion and babble about family values and getting “back to basics.” Work/life balance is fashionable. We’ll establish a fine-sounding policy and guidelines (just so long as we don’t have to act on any of them). Let’s do what everyone else is doing. Who’s setting the fashion? Quick, get on their bandwagon.

Fashion industries breed gurus

Successful designers, filmmakers, or directors become stars and develop fan clubs who hang on every word and treat their hero’s pronouncements as holy writ. Hordes of fashionistas parrot the views of the latest high-profile leaders and mimic their slightest gesture. As a 1996 article in the Academy of Management Review said (The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 21, No. 1. (1996), pp. 254-285):
Management fashion setters disseminate . . . transitory collective beliefs that certain management techniques are at the forefront of management progress. These fashion setters—consulting firms, management gurus, business mass-media publications, and business schools—do not simply force fashions onto gullible managers. To sustain their images as fashion setters, they must lead in a race (a) to sense the emergent collective preferences of managers for new management techniques, (b) to develop rhetorics that describe these techniques as the forefront of management progress, and (c) to disseminate these rhetorics back to managers and organizational stakeholders before other fashion setters. Fashion setters who fall behind in this race (e.g., business schools or certain scholarly professional societies) are condemned to be perceived as lagging rather than leading management progress, as peripheral to the business community, and as undeserving of societal support. [link]


Successful CEOs become media personalities and appear on the covers of Time and Newsweek, spawning thousands more imitators. Books promising to share the supposed “secrets” of leaders from Genghis Khan to Donald Trump are in every bookstore. TV gets in on the act with “The Apprentice” and the Martha Stewart spin-off (imitation now copies imitation). Management has become the new spectator sport. Stand in a row and say, “You’re fired.” Let’s all be like Enron— oops! I mean . . . (hey, who’s making serious money these days?).

Spin is “in” and style is more important than substance. Management, Hollywood, and politics are blurring into one another. Politicians talk like executives and executives have their own primetime TV shows. Everyone must stay “on message,” even if the message is trite, meaningless or downright deceptive. Marketers openly acknowledge they tell lies, where once they tried to hide their manipulations. “So it’s not true? Hell, it made a better story, didn’t it?” Don’t tell me about your new idea, tell me who else is already interested. Any big names?

Does it matter?

Yes, it does. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s an abandonment of reason. In the mad search for answers based on the words or actions of the fashionable, reality gets lost and truth is subordinated to a good plot-line. You’re either a trendsetter, a wannabe or a nobody. What maybe worked for one company in one set of specific circumstances is inflated into sacred dogma. Who cares about the truth? We want soundbites!

There’s an enormous waste of time and resources involved in chasing some fashionable approach that is soon dropped or discredited. It’s fair to say that most vogues and fashions in management later prove to be ineffective, instant nostrums for much more highly complex problems. Many fashions in management are based on flimsy evidence. Changes in executive personnel swiftly lead to sudden re-evaluations in strategy. Each newly-promoted leader leadership seeks to establish his or her territory and power through a new gospel: a fresh truism dusted off and brought out of the closet, then championed with as much vigor as was seen for whatever was the orthodoxy under the previous incumbent. Is it any wonder that, for many organizations, long-term strategy is less a focused progress towards a desired end than a series of unexpected U-turns and diversions.

In Ancient Greece, writers like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides probed the causes of tragedy and the downfall of rulers and heroes. Their understanding was summarized in a single sentence: “Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.”

Management today seems dangerously close to meeting that definition too. It’s time to slow down and allow reason to take the place of mindless imitation, and reflection to take the place of “shoot-from-the-hip” action.



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9 Comments:

Tess Marshall said...

This reminds me of some advice I got early in my career from a "trendy" senior manager. He told me to buy and read the very latest management book each month and leave it on display in my office to impress visitors.
He said that as managers, we should make a point of using the latest techniques because they would put us in line for promotion.
Not a word about whether this was actually good management in terms of good for the people and the organisation. I guess at least he was honest!

10:45 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Yep! I guess he was honest, Tess.

Thanks for the comment and the smile.

Keep reading, my friend.

1:12 PM  
Peter Vajda said...

Then, there's the flip side today where many blame the ineffectiveness of "managing by bestseller"; the reason most training doesn't stick due to lack of follow up, long-term, since a new fad is out tomorrow, and everyone's jumping ship on yesterday's fad.

6:20 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

I agree with you, Peter.

Most change or learning takes time, but in an atmosphere of instant gratification no one wants to wait for anything. Hence the lure of all those books and articles based on: "Do these 3 (5, 6,10) simple things and get instant results."

And, as you say, when the panacea fails, it's on to the next fad — not a realization that taking time is the only way to get true results.

Keep reading, my friend.

8:41 PM  
Jerome Alexander said...

When will they learn that all management fads have a limited life! There are no "silver bullets" and no substitutes for good smart work. Worse yet is when some consultant tries to evangelize the workforce into believing in some "new religion" replete with its own rituals, icons, and Bibles. It's all intended to convince the masses that their attitudes about pay cuts, grueling schedules and idiot managers are wrongminded. God forbid (the real one)that one ever gets on the wrong side of one of these "prophets" by having an original thought. Remember the Spanish inquisition? What an insult to the intelligence of employees and good managers.
Successful organizations innovate. They are honest with their workforce and respect divergent opinions. They do not need to use goofy gimmicks and play games with employees' psyches.
In fact, there is really only one thing that all successful organizations have in common - they are successful. Excerpted from "160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic."

6:18 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Jerome. I'm right with you.

By the way, I love your book!

Keep reading, my friend.

9:18 PM  
Jerome Alexander said...

Thanks for the comment regarding my book, Carmine. Keep spreading the word!

5:05 AM  
Thad said...

If anyone is looking for a trendy management technique, maybe the clearly self-defeating ones are best. :)

Forces one to move on faster.

http://www.thadguy.com/comic/catastrophize/64/

6:07 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for the comment and the laugh, Thad.

Sadly, the behavior you describe is all too common.

Keep reading, my friend.

9:16 PM  

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