As s+b marks 20 years of publication, we are looking back (and forward) to reflect on the themes, people, and ideas that have animated two decades of original thinking. This is the sixth in a series of blog posts.
Does management thinking still matter? Is there anything new left to say?
As editor of Harvard Business Review, I ask myself these questions all the time. (I also asked them when I was executive editor of strategy+business from 2005 to 2008.) The challenge is that there just aren't that many truly new ideas in the world. Many of the most compelling management insights remain timeless, from Frederick Winslow Taylor’s turn-of-the-20th-century thinking on what we now call “productivity” to Michael Porter’s five competitive forces that shape strategy, first developed in 1979. And yet, the global output of white papers, blogs, books, and newspaper and magazine articles on management and leadership seems to be at an all-time high. (I blame the explosion of “thought leadership” as a tool for personal and corporate branding, which has generated a lot more noise than signal.)
What isn’t timeless, however, is context. Economic, social, and competitive dynamics, which are on high boil, are altering business with breathtaking speed and drama. How do you manage in a world that just gets more complex? Given that the world is constantly changing, it makes sense that the appetite for advice on conducting business is only growing. Now more than ever — regardless of the context in which they operate or the way in which they consume it — people need what strategy+business and HBR offer: vetted insights from proven experts. After all, the smartest management ideas find order in seeming chaos, make the future a little easier to see, and enable us to steer large numbers of people in one direction to achieve remarkable results. When the competitive landscape is shifting, leaders have to figure out which rules apply so they can navigate their organizations toward success.
I have found, then, that the answer to that first question — what’s new? — is the application of the idea more than the idea itself. The most thoughtful theorists aren’t content to promulgate a brilliant insight and preserve it in amber. They figure out how their ideas apply to new contexts. For example, many people have asserted that the Internet of Things will “change everything” (including HBR, by the way) by redrawing industry boundaries and reformulating the firm's relationships with its stakeholders. But Michael Porter has shown that his theory of competitive strategy applies beautifully to this new context and illuminates the emerging dynamics of business. His guidance will help a lot of leaders avoid expensive and potentially fatal mistakes.
The most thoughtful theorists aren’t content to promulgate a brilliant insight and preserve it in amber.
But that doesn’t mean the smartest theories don’t need tweaking. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Clayton Christensen and his theory of disruptive innovation. (He discussed it in these pages in 2001.) It’s taken a couple of hits in the last year from critics who attack his logic and sources. But what the naysayers miss is that Clay himself is always looking for the weaknesses in his thinking and has refined it many times since he introduced the theory 20 years ago. (I’ve had the privilege of attending seminars with him and he always asks to be challenged. Always.) The theory was never carved in stone; it is alive and he has updated and improved it. As a result, it continues to provide the most useful guidance to entrepreneurs looking to upend an industry and leaders of incumbent businesses arming themselves to identify and battle threats. If anything, the theory is more valuable today than it’s ever been.
We should also be cognizant of the fact that the world is continually producing new managers and leaders for whom classic management ideas will be revelations. This realization hit home earlier this fall when I visited Beijing. I asked a few business leaders and academics whether there’s a distinctly Chinese way of management. But none of them wanted to pursue that line of inquiry. Instead, they wanted to talk about innovation, scaling businesses, and how to thrive over the long haul. I saw a real hunger to understand how the world works, how it will change, and how to lead amid uncertainty. So, yes. Management thinking still matters. A lot.