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Published: October 10, 2002


Best Business Books 2002: Management

With its portentous title, What Management Is: How It Works and Why It’s Everyone’s Business (Simon & Schuster Inc., Free Press, 2002), written by consultant and former Harvard Business Review strategy editor Joan Magretta, with the magazine’s former editor Nan Stone, represents a lucid and provocative description of the bedrock, the fundamentals of management, which the authors believe lies under the swamp. They define management as the capacity to turn complexity and specialization into performance, and they detail how their approach could affect both for-profit firms and not-for-profit organizations.

The book has a certain ex cathedra quality — this is the way it is. For example, the authors dismiss the arguments about management versus leadership as superficial and even damaging to the whole field of management. And they encourage the reader to “…think of this book as everything you wanted to know about management but were afraid to ask.”

One question some readers might want to ask is: Why is the book organized into two such neat divisions — Design and Execution? The implication of such a structure is that, at least in principle, organizations should be designed on drawing boards and the blueprints handed over for implementation: Structure follows strategy. Magretta and Stone describe entrepreneurial icons such as George Eastman (Kodak) and Sam Walton (Wal-Mart) in their early years as “thinking through” who the customers are and what the customers value. Everything we know about how entrepreneurs work suggests that this almost certainly didn’t happen. This mode of working is just not practicable early in the life of an organization, unless one stretches the action of “thinking” to meaninglessly large dimensions. The entrepreneurial process is inherently unstructured, and the crisp logic of strategy often emerges only retrospectively after long periods of trial and error. Although the process may be heavily rationalized in hindsight, it is rarely rational at the time.

In recent years, arguments against the rational-actor model have been cogently made by such academics as Henry Mintzberg in The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning: Reconceiving Roles for Planning, Plans, Planners (Simon & Schuster Inc., Free Press, 1993) and Robert Burgelman in Strategy Is Destiny: How Strategy-Making Shapes a Company’s Future (Simon & Schuster Inc., Free Press, 2001). The empirical evidence for the rational model is skimpy, and it ignores the complex co-evolution of acting and thinking in any human enterprise. Thus it’s a little surprising that Joan Magretta and Nan Stone should nail their strategy colors so firmly to Michael Porter’s mast and omit any mention of either emergent strategy or the constraints against innovation that mature organizations face as they age. Porter’s frameworks are brilliant tools for MBA students to use in analyzing industries, but they are much less useful down in the gumbo where managers and workers are trying to make sense of the dynamics of their own particular organization.

What Management Is has been hailed in some quarters as a refreshing return to the basics. But this ignores the fact that these are the very basics that got us into trouble in the first place. This monolithic view of management makes external observers of apparently thriving organizations — directors and analysts alike — vulnerable to elaborate rationalizations of opportunistic successes that may not be sustainable. Internally, this vision of management privileges the view of senior managers. It makes them feel good about themselves, but it often does so at the expense of those who work for them. Such a perspective may encourage its adherents to default to those dissonant commanding and pace-setting leadership styles identified by Daniel Goleman and others, with the accompanying inhibition of feedback from the bottom to the top of the organization.

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