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The management myth (2006) (theatlantic.com)
240 points by wtbob on June 19, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 155 comments



For the last 4 years I have worked for the first time in my career as employee of a big corporation. The "managing class" of MBAs reminds me of the way a communist state like East Germany was run. Centralized decision making, information withholding, the desire to plan out everything for years, saying one thing while meaning the opposite, hanging up motivational posters "we are innovative" while squashing innovation, ignoring of inconvenient facts and so on. All that comes with the appearance of "management science" and its own insider language.


I always find it a very negative sign for a company, when the corridors are getting filled with pep talk posters, which could have come directly from the latest management magazine.

For me it is a clear sign, that innovation and real work done in the company is going rapidly downwards.

Continuously repeating, how good "we" are clearly says, that the company is currently "not good enough".

What might work in personal psychology, does not in corporations, where everything else tells the workers, that their work does not count, but only the work of the poster creators.


A woman of my acquaintance, a substitute teacher in one of the local school systems, has said that the number of posters about values and respect is in inverse proportion to the quality of the schooling.


Can confirm.

I've heard that my company has been told to tighten the belt, that there are a lot of positions in the company that don't produce value to paying customers. At pretty much the same time, I'm seeing a wave of self-aggrandizing motivational posters. I think I see a connection.


Universities and Hospitals are infected with them. Like full blown infestation.


Yep! But his is not like an autoimmune disorder (e.g. type 1 diabetes). It's more like an acquire disease (i.e. type 2 diabetes), for which we fully understand how to prevent and alleviate, but somehow do not implement the necessary measures.


Guess whose job it is to implement the necessary measures.


Let's sort that at the preliminary scoping meeting before assigning it a team at the next quarterly.


It's more like a host/parasite relationship.

The cure, in any case (unionization of the value producers), isn't particularly obvious to most.


Except the unions will also grow a management structure or a political class, and eventually the two hierarchies get stuck in an uncomfortable stalemate.


How do you unionize just the value producers, without also unionizing (and entrenching) layers of middle management?


As long as companies maintain a pyramid structure management layers will be outnumbered by workers. It balances things automatically.


It is my belief that after the creation of the NLRB this is no longer possible, though people did it before that.


Why would middle management need unionization?


Would a senior programmer be ejected from the union when they are promoted to say a project manager? I'm just not sure you can isolate value producers.


The key question isn't "do they produce value?", it's "can they hire and fire?"

Once people acquire power over resources/people the shift from value creation to value extraction is pretty natural.


> The key question isn't "do they produce value?", it's "can they hire and fire?"

This is traditionally the line that people draw, yes, but I think the reasons for that come from the other end.

That's the thing; the manager who manages the cashiers at the grocery store doesn't have more power than the individual contributor software engineer who writes the software for the registers, not in any reasonable sense. That's not why the the line is traditionally drawn where it is.

The line is traditionally drawn where it is because it is management's job to act as a proxy for the will and interests of the owners, and pretending to do that while being in the same union as the workers would be very difficult, or at the very least, quite awkward.


The power relationship a cashier has with his hiring/firing manager at a grocery store is not materially different to the relationship a software developer has with his hiring/firing manager.

In both cases the managers' job is to keep the workers in line.


>The power relationship a cashier has with his hiring/firing manager at a grocery store is not materially different to the relationship a software developer has with his hiring/firing manager.

I disagree.

>In both cases the managers' job is to keep the workers in line.

While I agree with this part, I think the differences in the pay of the worker makes for a hugely different power dynamic. a period of unemployment is a lot easier to take if you can live on 1/4th of what you get paid.


Right, they are forming professional societies.

(Like SHRM: https://www.shrm.org/ , which just showed a TV advertisement, for some reason)


[flagged]


Did you read the article? This comment, while mildly joking, is derived from that article.

I think the most important thing that it says: people should do a better job of thinking, and do less of regurgitating other people's philosophies.

The points at the end are quite good, if very abstract.


Now you know why healthcare and education costs so much in America.


It is spreading to the rest of the world under the "new public management" moniker.

Effectively it is a scheme of metrics, and attached incentives and punishments, cooked up by MBAs to emulate market mechanics within public services.


Well, yes. This is because both are examples of command economies and both evolve additional non-hierarchical mechanisms to achieve actual outcomes.

In any large enterprise there is always a Nomenklatura who actually "make things happen".

When explaining to people that trying, for the billionth time, to create The Perfect Reward Scheme won't work, I put it this way: GOSPLAN had decades, and access to unlimited men with guns and dogs, to make its plans work. And it failed.


> GOSPLAN had decades, and access to unlimited men with guns and dogs, to make its plans work. And it failed.

I am no fan of oppressive regimes, centralised planning or Stalinism, but it always grinds my gears when people point to the collapse of the Soviet Union as the One, Absolute proof that centralised planning is always doomed to failure.

While I'm sure that the hierarchy and command structure of the government and economy had their parts to play in the collapse, their importance is often overplayed by gargantuan proportions.

At the time of the October Revolution, Russia was a largely agrarian society, which henceforth industrialised and developed remarkably quickly under Stalinist Five-Year-Plans, in the midst of the Great Depression. However, it was still poor and barely industrialised when it was decimated by WWII. Despite this, it recovered to become a major world power that challenged the US during its peak.

US GDP has consistently been 3-5 times USSR GDP during the the latter's entire period of existence. Despite this, the pressures of the Cold War forced USSR military spending to match US spending, reaching more than 25% of GDP.

Any country in a similar position would be doomed to crack under the economic strain, regardless of the structure of government or economy.


I think it was the fall in oil prices in the late 70s/early 80s - combined with a ruinous invasion of Afghanistan - that finally did in the Soviet Union economically. Putin should take note.

Otherwise - despite the appalling human cost of projects such as the White Sea Canal and farm collectivisation - the USSR did indeed become a global power if only for a short period. Red Plenty [1] is an excellent book on the subject.

[1] https://www.amazon.co.uk/Red-Plenty-Francis-Spufford/dp/0571...


An interesting review of "Red Plenty" can be found at http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/09/24/book-review-red-plenty/


> However, it was still poor and barely industrialised when it was decimated by WWII.

The country was killing itself at a fantastic rate during the 30's purges prior to WWII. Stalins complete failure to listen to the advice of the remaining army staff ('that army we can see is about to invade') helped make the situation even more desperate.


Being able to buy toilet paper was a major win (in the '80s), that was planning economy at its finest, not military spending. Or people who had to commute from countryside to large cities to buy cheese and sausage. Source: born in the USSR.


> At the time of the October Revolution, Russia was a largely agrarian society, which henceforth industrialised and developed remarkably quickly under Stalinist Five-Year-Plans, in the midst of the Great Depression. However, it was still poor and barely industrialised when it was decimated by WWII. Despite this, it recovered to become a major world power that challenged the US during its peak.

Apologists for the Soviet regime always like to bring up how quickly it developed, but they ignore a) that prior to the Great War Russia was actually quite advanced and b) how quick its development could have been with a market economy. Yes, Russia in 1984 was extremely advanced compared to Russia in 1919 — but the free world in 1984 was far more advanced than the free world in 1919.


a.) In 1919 Russia was not nearly as advanced as the US or Europe.

b.) Unlike the US, Soviet Union came out of WW2 with cities destroyed, and 20% of its population killed, most of them able-bodied men in their prime.

Yet, by 1984, the USSR had:

- free universal healthcare

- largely egalitarian society with very little inequality

- free, excellent education system, from K through PhD

- women treated equally in the workforce unlike the West

- walkable cities with very good public transit

What the free world had:

- Start of Reagonomics and Thatcherism era

- Plenty of cheap consumer goods to buy and waste

- Fantastic entertainment industry

- White flight and suburban sprawl

- Beginning of War on Drugs, sponsorship of Islamic extremism in Afghanistan

I guess my point is that one should probably define "advanced" before proceeding to discuss it.


>Equal Pay Act 1970

>National Health Service 1946-1948

>Defining Thatcherism as bad

All before 1984.

You can't take all the bad parts of the 'West', however you define it, and compare it with a single country.


>>doomed to crack under the economic strain

Actually any normal country would not have wanted to match the US's military spending. It is precisely, this crazy, paranoid, militaristic bureaucracy that people criticize - not the mention any human rights issues.


'Any normal country' doesn't have it's ideological basis declared US public enemy #1, and its growing influence deemed by a "crazy, paranoid militaristic bureaucracy" to be the greatest threat civilization has ever faced.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Scare


The Red Scare wasn't pure paranoia: it was in reaction to a legitimate threat. The COMINTERN really did want to overthrow the governments of all other countries, and the members thereof really did work towards that goal.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communist_International


Indeed, there was quite a bit of govenment overthrowing, mostly at gunpoint and backed by the USSR. Of the The Black Book of Communism's 94 million estimated victims 74m were outside the USSR so there were issues there. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_Book_of_Communism


As mentioned by OP the US invested considerably less resources as a fraction of the total trying to fight communism. Contemporary Russian domestic propaganda draws a direct line between the so called "heroic" sacrifices the Soviet people made ( a majority of which were self inflicted) and the sacrifices Russians will yet again make due to EU import bans - which we recall is due to them invading the Ukraine.


>Actually any normal country would not have wanted to match the US's military spending.

It's pretty normal behavior for most countries to react defensively and aggressively when threatened.

Hence:

* USA puts nukes in Turkey => USSR puts nukes in Cuba.

* USA puts nukes on the Korean DMZ => North Korea creates nuclear weapons program.

What's fucking weird is how American propaganda manages to successfully depict these kinds of actions as the unprovoked behaviors of crazed madmen.

The same kind of attitude towards Iran is common, too.


> USA puts nukes in Turkey => USSR puts nukes in Cuba.

Well, let's not forget Hungary and Poland, shall we?

> The same kind of attitude towards Iran is common, too.

Iran is pretty agressive in its rethoric on how it wants to wipe out a certain democracy by the Mediterranean.


"let's not forget Hungary and Poland"

Hungary and Poland had nukes??

"Iran ... wants to wipe out a certain..."

Iran wants to wipe out, US are wiping out the whole countries and don't seem to know how to stop.


> Hungary and Poland had nukes??

No, they tried to get independent from USSR. Even the somewhat liberal USSR government at that time decided to crush them.

> Iran wants to wipe out, US are wiping out the whole countries and don't seem to know how to stop.

I cannot and will not defend everything US does and I freely admit they have made a lot of questionable moves over the years. Still broadly hyperbolic statements like yours doesn't help I think. US is more of a clumsy and somewhat selfish giant than an evil giant but many (including myself and my parents) are very happy that US has intervened in a number of conflicts as well as made clear that the rest of Europe wasn't up for taking. (Modern Russia doesn't seem to evil either but former USSR proved to be a legitimate source of concern for smaller countries with common borders.)


First, a bit of nitpicking. You probably meant Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Two notorious rebellions took place is 50's and 60's.

1. Either way, the original argument was that some Soviet actions were reactions to actions of US (nukes in Cuba etc). No one says that Soviets were saints.

2. To simple people without guns in Iraq, Lybia and Syria the clumsiness of US may be a weak consolation.

As a side note, looks like people are blind to what is happening in the world before their eyes. We are all smart in hindsight, e.g. blaming Soviets for the crap they have done. But, what amazes me, is that actions of US, brutal, barbarian bombings, regime changes, plunging countries and millions of people into chaos, are not condemned at all! On the contrary, US is very proud of what they are doing (looks like they are going into 4/8 more years of it). It will probably take a number of years before people are able to reflect on what damage US has done in the past 20 years.


I meant Hungary and Poland. Czechoslovakia was 1968, long after the missile crisis.

> 1. Either way, the original argument was that some Soviet actions were reactions to actions of US (nukes in Cuba etc). No one says that Soviets were saints.

Agree. Only, however dumb or not - I can't say, US decision to move nukes to Europe was most likely a reaction to something as well. That "something" might very well have been USSR aggressively expanding into Europe.

> 2. To simple people without guns in Iraq, Lybia and Syria the clumsiness of US may be a weak consolation.

Totally agree, only your original post was a bit hyperbolic as well as made it seem like US was doing this with evil intents (no doubt some US citizens, also in the Military complex are evil but I don't approve of the whole nation being more evil than others.)

> But, what amazes me, is that actions of US, brutal, barbarian bombings, regime changes, plunging countries and millions of people into chaos, are not condemned at all!

Don't know where you have been, around here they are condemned a lot for all kinds of good reasons, just like e.g. Israel, mentioned upthread. And just like Israel they get a lot of additional hate from what seems to be uncritical underdog-supporters.

I don't say any of them don't deserve critic; I just say we shouldn't judge them without taking into account the whole situation.

PS: Same happens with Microsoft, and as someone who has disliked MS strongly for most of my career I appreciate that I can like them now, it gives me hope that I am not a totally hopeless fanboy in other situations either.


>Iran is pretty agressive in its rethoric on how it wants to wipe out a certain democracy by the Mediterranean.

Apartheid. Palestinians are under occupation, will not get their own state and cannot vote.

The rhetoric is only aggressive once it's gone through the media filter. What they actually said is closer in meaning to what some wet Jewish New York liberals say - that Israel "the Jewish state" should be consigned to the dustbin of history.


Well, anytime Israel give them a little more room they use it to move their rocket launchers closer. That is not a particularly smart move unless you want to keep the conflict going.

Also: Arab citizens in Israel can vote, - Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank can vote in Gaza.

As for the media filter that is really interesting (I think there is a grain of truth to it) but more than that you have to show evidence.


Do you have more details about this?



Yeah, it's funny how many people look at a country that went from agrarian society to first spacefaring society & 2nd most powerful nation in ~40 years and go "obviously their economic system was an abject failure".

The level of growth experienced by the SU was unsurpassed. In the 50s the US media was fretting over it being "too successful".


> Yeah, it's funny how many people look at a country that went from agrarian society to first spacefaring society & 2nd most powerful nation in ~40 years and go "obviously their economic system was an abject failure".

The U.S. went from agrarian society to the first spacefaring society to make it to the Moon, and became the most powerful nation on earth, in ~40 years.

The issue is not that the Soviets didn't develop: it's that they didn't develop as quickly as they could have, had their central planning not retarded their growth rate. Not to mention their utterly murderous regime.


> The issue is not that the Soviets didn't develop: it's that they didn't develop as quickly as they could have, had their central planning not retarded their growth rate

Even if centralised planning is doomed to retard growth rates(a hypothesis I consider quite plausible), you cannot reasonably confirm that hypothesis, or the extent of the retardation, using the example of Soviet Russia. There were too many factors involved for you to lay so much of the blame on centralised planning.

There were multiple geopolitical and economic factors involved, including the fact that USSR was trying to match the military and diplomatic might of an economy triple its size, fought wasteful wars(Wars are a centralized decision in almost all modern countries) and suffered from variations in the rates of global commodities. These factors alone would most likely decimate a country no matter what its economic system.


The US benefited from WW2, while USSR had a large amount of their infrastructure destroyed and 20 million of most productive members of society killed in their prime. Yet they still pulled it off.


The growth was so incredible that even though the Soviet Union's economy was about half of that in the US in 1961, Samuelson estimated Russia would overtake the US sometime in 1984-1997.

It's pretty remarkable that after 30 years consistently growing much faster than the United States, in 1990 the USSR economy was still half as large!

http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2010/01/sov...


in the 30s, a lot of European media was reporting about happy life of working people in the USSR (see 'useful idiots')


Indeed, the apparent success of the Soviet NHS model, for example, in fighting Typhoid, Typhus and Tuberculosis is partly what led to the structure of the British NHS.

Had the Tories had their way in the 40s (and without a clear example of success to point to, they may have), the UK would now have an insurance based "show me the money and we treat you" system - the exact kind which Americans are all apparently very happy with.


USSR GDP was a total lie like the foam missiles. On a totally centralized economy the statistics depend on the Government and of course, they are not real.

Specially under Stalin, nobody ever gave a bad number, because he would be murdered as incompetent,this fact led to consequences: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holodomor

The people in power in the US knew that was totally bogus, but the defense industry benefited immensely from this belief.

Look for Argentina recently(Kirchner) where people has gone to prison, their properties confiscated just for publicizing data that went against the official data by law.

Something similar happens in China today, and as centralization increases, in the Western world too. The data from central banks are becoming more and more "hocus pocus".


Don't pin the Holodomor on timid statisticians and misunderstandings. It was deliberate, as is stated in the lede of the very article you link to: "actions such as rejection of outside aid, confiscation of all household foodstuffs, and restriction of population movement confer intent, defining the famine as genocide"


I've been part of that group within large organizations at a few different levels.

It's both an intensely rewarding experience -- you get to fix things that are broken and get a lot of creative license. Simultaneously, it's also intensely depressing, as you get to learn how the metaphorical sausage is made.


not to discount your experience, but how do you know that your sense of being part of the core group that actually "makes things happen" isnt shared by many others who also feel that they belong to the group that really runs the place?


I'm sure that people feel that way. And to some extent they are correct -- ultimately they keep the trains running. But few other teams can do anything new in a reasonable period.

Unfortunately I think that "truth" is a tough nut to crack in political scenarios. Perception generally rules the day, and most of these teams that play that role are successful in acquiring the trappings of corporate power -- fast action on HR, access to the decision makers/purse stringers, and perks.

It doesn't last forever, because like in the Soviet system, these things depend on powerful patrons.


In a world ruled by perception, how may a servant of the truth best fulfill his duty?


You mean the sausage is acutally metaphorical? I had assumed otherwise.


GOSPLAN had decades, and access to unlimited men with guns and dogs, to make its plans work. And it failed.

For a while (until the early 80s) things did work reasonably well in the Soviet Union, compared to its overall condition at the end of WW II.


do your attempts in explaining this make any difference at all in terms of making things happen? or are they also failures?


So what's the alternative?


Push decision making out as far as possible.


Don't participate


Don't blame the MBA degree as the root cause of these symptoms. I have had a Mathematics PhD manager who exemplified these exact traits to a T. Doing an MBA is just a symptom of the ladder-climbing mentality, just like the buzzword bingo, the elevation of ignorance to a virtue and the do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do leadership.


Amen. That's a very good, concise, and apt description. It mirrors my own not inconsiderable experience.

I simply can't take it anymore.


>The "managing class" of MBAs reminds me of the way a communist state like East Germany was run. Centralized decision making, information withholding, the desire to plan out everything for years, saying one thing while meaning the opposite, hanging up motivational posters "we are innovative" while squashing innovation, ignoring of inconvenient facts and so on.

Huh? What's wrong with centralized decision making and planning out everything for years? The rest I can agree with, but 1) in any company, you need centralized decision making or you won't get anything done; the point of a company is not to be a democracy, it's to be a machine that generates profit, and centralized decision making accomplishes that. And 2) what can possibly be wrong with planning things out far ahead? I worked at Intel for years and they did this, and it worked, for the most part. (Obviously, circumstances forced plans to be altered or even abandoned at times.) If you don't have a plan several years out of what you want to be doing, you're not going to accomplish anything big. How do you think the Moon missions could have worked if they didn't plan that out years in advance?

It sounds to me like you're comparing whatever little podunk 20-person company you used to work at with the big corporation you find yourself in now, and you're trying to assume that everything the little company did was somehow correct. It wasn't; the big company got to be a big company by doing something right.

Many of the other things you complain about just sound like typical bad management, and things you'll find in any organization that isn't perfect. Information withholding and saying one thing and meaning the opposite and ignoring inconvenient facts: aren't those common with the US government? I saw these in several small companies I've worked in (and big companies too). It's not unique to big companies. There's definitely more of it in poorly-run companies, which should be no surprise. There's no shortage of poorly-run companies out there, big and small.

As for the motivational posters, that's a fad (though admittedly it's been around a good 15-20 years now). I recommend getting your own motivational posters and hanging them in your cubicle (if you even have a cubicle; working at big companies was a lot nicer 10-20 years ago before this idiotic "open plan office" craze). You can get some excellent posters [here](https://www.despair.com/collections/demotivators).

(What kind of site calling itself "Hacker News" doesn't even support some kind of basic markup for embedding links? Come on guys.)


> What's wrong with centralized decision making and planning out everything for years? The rest I can agree with, but 1) in any company, you need centralized decision making or you won't get anything done; the point of a company is not to be a democracy, it's to be a machine that generates profit, and centralized decision making accomplishes that.

No it doesn't. Top-level decision makers are poorly informed about what's possible and what's actually effective. Complete top-down decision making is Dilbert incarnate.

Top-level executives need to make the goals of the company clear to team managers, and that's not just "profit", and they need to set the constraints that any direction in pursuit of those goals must satisfy (such as legal or marketing requirements), and let the engineers find optimal solutions within that space. Engineers excel at finding effective solutions given a set of constraints, executives excel at defining business policies that effectively shape a successful business. Let each employ their appropriate skill set.

> And 2) what can possibly be wrong with planning things out far ahead?

Inflexibility to changing market conditions. Having invested time, money and effort into forming such an intricate long-term plan drives us to stupidly believing sunk cost fallacies, and ignore evidence of ineffectiveness.


No. Top management sees the company in quite a different view than its employee. They also see their own future. So, what they decide for the company might actually not much to do with what the company does. For example, the president of a big car company can have a big interest in making polluting car. So it'll make sure the company is a bit dysfunctional on environment protection. Of course he won't say it. In exchange, the top manager will be rewarded and might event get some more power to help the company in a more positive way later on. I experienced that 2 times. One in a huge japanese tyre company : we were given small book explaining us how the company was ecological, while a te the same time rubber extraction was pursued in an absolute non ecological way. In a gov't company, we're continually told to work for those we help but at the same time, the top mangement decision make that work super difficult.

My thought is : manager are human, and their in position where they have lots of pressure (they've chosen that). so most of them behave has human : they do mistakes, they act more selfishly than they care to admit and they mask the truth with lies or on-purpose ignorance.

As I prefer to act with real good intention and produce tangible results, I know I won't ever make it to the top. I'm not interested in making compromise.

Moreover, when I'm with people who are at the top or who want to be at the top, I can clearly sense that their core-values are very different, even opposite of mines... And I'm sure they instantly feel I'm not part of the tribe. Because that's a tribe with values, customs, dress, etc.


> They also see their own future. So, what they decide for the company might actually not much to do with what the company does.

That's exactly what I said executives should do: set goals and constraints on how to fulfill those goals. You're just saying that companies can change goals, and that's fine. You just tell your employees that your goals are changing, so they shift focus to the new goals. You're still not making decisions for them other than overall direction.


I think what Wiz21 is getting at is that the interests of the company and the interests of its senior managers are not always aligned.


Sure, but I thought we were talking about what makes for good management. Bad managers either need to be reformed or fired.


The big problem is that bad managers get their by sacrificing the company's success for their own success, and focusing on managing perception as opposed to creating value.

For instance if you were a V.P. at an mortgage company you could push your underlings to make bad loans. Even though in the long term it will hurt the company when those individuals default, in the short-term you will look awesome.

Or for instance when a V.P.s boss makes a wide ranging decision about the company will move in a new direction. For instance "To the cloud". You can argue about how that doesn't make sense for your part of the organization and have you're boss and grand-boss think of you as "Not a team player". Or you can cheer-lead a decision you know is wrong, knowing that afterwards you can produce some great powerpoints slides about how failure was outside of your control.


> For instance if you were a V.P. at an mortgage company you could push your underlings to make bad loans. Even though in the long term it will hurt the company when those individuals default, in the short-term you will look awesome.

Having metrics to measure success is of course important. While micro metrics like lines of code produced per day are easily gamed, metrics like number of successful projects divided by the estimated risk are not. For the mortgage, number of mortgages divided my estimated risk is similar, and would easily identify the managers that are putting the company at risk to game their metrics.

> Or for instance when a V.P.s boss makes a wide ranging decision about the company will move in a new direction. For instance "To the cloud".

Do you mean that the CEO is declaring that the company should use the cloud for all of their products, or that the company is to become a cloud provider? Because the former is exactly the wrong type of decision that I've been talking about, and the latter is exactly the kind of decision they should make.


>Inflexibility to changing market conditions. Having invested time, money and effort into forming such an intricate long-term plan drives us to stupidly believing sunk cost fallacies, and ignore evidence of ineffectiveness.

Oh please. I've worked in giant companies that planned things years in advance. The plans changed frequently, with market conditions. Planning things far ahead doesn't mean you're rigidly bound to those plans, it just means you have goals you've set and you're going to work towards unless things change, forcing you to alter those plans.

By your logic, you shouldn't bother going to college, because things might change and planning things out 4-5 years in advance like that is futile. Lots of people go to college and end up changing their major or doing things somewhat differently while they're there; not going to college at all because this might happen would be stupid.

>Top-level decision makers are poorly informed about what's possible and what's actually effective. Complete top-down decision making is Dilbert incarnate.

Centralized planning doesn't necessarily mean micromanagement. It just means not acting like Microsoft with the different business units all competing with each other and stabbing each other in the back.


> Planning things far ahead doesn't mean you're rigidly bound to those plans, it just means you have goals you've set and you're going to work towards unless things change, forcing you to alter those plans.

Except that's not what the original poster was talking about. The OP specifically referenced the centralized planning of communist states, which are poorly informed and inflexible to changing conditions, just like I said, and they employ deceptive propaganda even among the people that are supposed to help them realize their plans.

Nothing wrong with having a rough strategy that you openly share with your employees so you can all work towards realizing. That's exactly the kind of planning I described in fact.


Then the OP was making a strawman argument. I've worked in big companies, and I've seen long-term planning, and it's not like what he complains about. He's alleging that all big companies use this mythical rigid central planning, and it simply isn't true, he doesn't even have any examples.

If big companies were all like failed communist states, then these big companies would have failed long ago. They haven't. Maybe some have, and maybe some small fraction of those did fail partially due to overly-rigid long-term planning, but to claim that this is a common problem among big companies is quite wrong IMO.


As far as I know "podunk" is an insult, is that what you intended?

My problem with the planning obsession is that planning is really hard in software development. It's different in production. There you can predict the future fairly well.

When I tell some middle managers that I don't know exactly how long a software project will take they insist on endless planning meetings that hold up work even more. In the end it's best to make up an estimate so the team can go back to work. All teams are forced to do so so in the end you just wait for the first team to fall behind schedule and take the blame.

The whole system is pretty much everybody lying to each other and hoping they won't fall first.


> When I tell some middle managers that I don't know exactly how long a software project will take they insist on endless planning meetings that hold up work even more.

It's middle management's job to come up with the estimate and give that to upper management. They should not be asking team leads for project-level estimates, team leads are too close to see the forest for the trees. Any time a manager asks me for a number, I ask them to try to come up with one, because their guess is as good as mine, so he might as well come up with it.

To management thinking, not knowing how long something is going to take is indicative of not understanding the problem enough. The solution to a lack of understanding is to get the right people in the room together to articulate what they know about it, figure out what's missing, and work out a correcting plan. In other words, a meeting.

What's different about software development is that it more resembles research than manufacturing. If you were to ask Thomas Edison while he was testing thousands of materials for filaments how long it was going to take before he has the next light bulb, he'd have angrily thrown you out of the room. Yet we expect programmers to be able to answer that question all the time.

The best estimate you'd get for when Edison would be done would be from someone close to him, but not actually working with him, say his secretary or wife. They'd be able to notice all the little things that he can't because he's not paying attention to them.

So in software development, you'd ask the lowest level manager, rather than coder, for a ballpark number. All that person needs to do is look over the history of the group and come up with a number in line with other projects with similar scopes. If there's no project with a similar scope, then a meeting or two is needed in order to work out how to break up the project into more-manageable chunks.


It doesn't make a difference if you ask the coder, the secretary or some manager as long as they are allowed to give a ballpark estimate. That's easy. The problem starts once somebody doesn't accept that ballpark number and wants more precise data. Then you start pouring over velocity data and define the project architecture to a level you can't reasonably know at this stage.

The solution usually is to make up some stuff but tell people about some nonsense methodology you used. It works but it's just lying. It would be much better if management methodologies would be able to accept uncertainty. Agile was one way to do this but it has evolved into a micromanagement tool.


> The problem starts once somebody doesn't accept that ballpark number and wants more precise data.

That's crappy management. If my boss did that to me, it's time for a closed-door meeting where we have a come-to-Jesus on how software development is conducted. If I can't show them the light, I start sending out resumes because my working relationship with my boss is trashed and life is only going to get more painful over time.


Yeah nah. (That's australian for I see what you're saying but you're wrong[1]). One goal of senior management is to try to determine an organisation's trajectory and make decisions that put it on that trajectory in the hopefully medium to long term - but beware short term financial incentives. Junior management has the same kind of thing going fractal style. Bonus points if that trajectory doesn't work out (do you have one or more fallbacks?). While centralised decision making may enable the whole long term planning thing to be realised, in some situations it's not possible (e.g. medical organisation where you have to give substantial numbers of staff very high levels of autonomy) or desirable (e.g. where you need to make staff at the minimum feel that they're in control of their own destiny because for example they're difficult to replace). In fact regarding the second point, I was involved in a project a while ago where the goal was to improve the autonomy of steel workers in order to effect organisational improvement. So there's a whole movement in management which is being fairly widely adopted to avoid excessive centralised planning.

[1] c.f. "nah yeah" - "what you're saying sounds very wrong but it's probably right"


> Yeah nah.

Australian? Yeah nah. It's Kiwi as


"Yeah no" is now fairly common in American English too. See, e.g.: http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2013/05/yeah-no.html


The problem is when the decision makers are removed from daily events, and they stick dogmatically to the plan and try to change reality to fit said plan.

A non-soviet example may well be McNamara's time as Secretary of Defense.

As one anecdote put it, by the time the report of a shooting of a elderly lady with a bicycle in a Vietnamese village had reached the DoD, it had become a ageless, genderless, combatant, with a grenade...


> What's wrong with centralized decision making and planning out everything for years?

Read Hayek's "The Use of Knowledge in Society"; it's about exactly this.


>… the science of handling pig iron is so great and amounts to so much that it is impossible for the man who is best suited to this type of work to understand the principles of this science, or even to work in accordance with these principles, without the aid of a man better educated than he is.

That is the most accurate description of MBAs and anyone involved in selling management consulting and advice.

It boils down to is "it's complicated, you need an expert." Don't ask why, you'll learn your lesson quick enough: "we're smarter than you, and we're really good at expressing it." In fact, that seems to be the primary skill required in this field: expressing that 'we're smarter than you.' I don't believe for a second the selection process at the most prestigious consulting firms is biased towards undergrad institution prestige for any other reason. Plenty of firms looking for great engineers/developers will hire a great candidate with a degree from a less-than-prestigious undergrad. I've never even heard of that in consulting and finance (I'm sure there's some exceptions, but I bet they're few and far between, and probably due to personal connections).


"In my experience, for what it’s worth, consultants monitored the progress of former clients about as diligently as they checked up on ex-spouses (of which there were many). "

Former consultant here. That is 100% true - the metric of success is whether clients buy more work, not how successful your recommendations were (and there can be many reasons to buy consulting services beyond they produced successful strategies)


What are other reasons?


Access to skills, networks or resources you don't have. For any significant decision it can be valuable to get a different perspective. It can also be a way of protecting confidentiality.

Lets say that you are deciding whether to sell a business unit, or to ramp up investment to try and break through.

- Skills benefit: creating the financial models is something many companies don't do all the time. Using an external consultant may also benefit as they may know current industry valuations.

- Network benefit: They might know other people in the segment who would be interested in your business unit. (for product development this is a better benefit). Counter-argument, it's part of managements job to know about the industry so your own network should be enough.

- Resource benefit: The whole team is busy so bringing in external resource to consider the problem lets internal resource keep focusing on existing business. The counter-argument is that if this is the most important thing to do then existing resource should be focusing on it.

- Different perspective: Someone coming from the outside who's not part of your group think. You can sometimes get access to real expects - counter argument is that they're often not real specialists, you have to test.

- Protecting confidentiality: You may not want it known that you're considering selling the unit. Consultants can act as a natural firewall. Tends to be more useful if you're looking at an external purchase - since in my example they'd have to crawl through the numbers of the unit and that makes it obvious.

The benefit no-one talks about:

- CYA: it's a tough decision and may turn out to be wrong. Helps to have "blah blah international consultancy says that X market will do Y and recommended as follows ...". Counter-argument: get some integrity. In fairness it can help to bolster an argument to have external 'calls to authority'.


Don't forget the bypassing of anti-trust laws. Coordinating prices with your competitors directly: illegal. Asking the same consultancy as all your competitors about what prices you should charge: perfectly legal.


The article confirms my own suspicions and experience: management is the art of selling bullshit, and being a deterrent rather than help (which it is supposed to be, and bills itself as).

The most disturbing (and correct in my observation) thought in the article is that there is now a new ruling class. And when I think about it, the management ruling class is like an octopus, like mafia, with connections and tendrils everywhere: it does not matter whether one is competent or benevolent, as long as one is well connected, the rest of the management mafiosos will always find "a slot" for one of their buddies and shove them somewhere to be a parasite in a company, parasite to the workers and society at large. And while they might be the ruling class at the moment, like a metastized cancer of society, now that we are aware of their presence, I say: nothing lasts forever. Bullshit cannot defeat logic, because problems are real, and bullshit cannot solve problems, only logic and knowledge can.


There must always be bullshit for logic to prevail over. There must always be...bureaucracy.


10 years later, this article still holds up. It's not necessarily the MBA that's at fault, but it is a degree handed out by too many institutions to students with too little experience to benefit from it. The MBA has become a career changer degree, rather than a supplement to people with solid leadership credentials - and the reason is obvious, once you have a track record, you don't need the degree, so schools have found a way to collect the tuition somewhere else. And the curricula don't vary as greatly across schools as the marketing materials would lead you to believe.

I am biased. I did some time in a large consultancy. I also chose a JD over an MBA precisely because it was different than the subject matter and way of thinking that I was exposed to on a daily basis at my employer and clients. So to a large degree, I agree with Stewart's position. Every Fortune 500 is pushing for "different perspectives" and "out of the box thinking" - and they pursue it through diversity. However, they hire the same consultants as the rest of their peers and advance individuals with the same degree from the same schools as everyone else. The hired diversity and diverse perspectives wash out somewhere in the middle management ranks. I'm now a director at a fortune 500 and I don't fit the profile at all. There are zero people in my peer group with backgrounds like mine, which is fine. But there are zero people in my peer group with backgrounds similar to mine (meaning non-traditional degrees and work experience) and that probably isn't fine. Naturally, the corporate initiatives are the same as what every other large corporation has done over the last decade - and it's funny because we tend to go last, and still don't learn from the mistakes of other companies. I suppose we don't even hire the good MBAs.


It is interesting that the most successful founders of companies are almost always domain experts in their field, or, at least, have spent time in the trenches of their domain. Bezos, Zuckerberg, Gates, Ellison, Page, and Brin all studied CS. Jobs had Woz, and is the exception that proves the rule (Jobs was maniacally product obsessed). Jack Welch was an Engineer. The list goes on and on.

Of all the topics that pop up on Hacker News the fact that MBAs are not useful to founding companies or creating new products seems to be a sentiment we share very little controversy over.

Yet why have MBA types come to dominate the ranks of the startup scene? I used to think that this trend wan't a big deal, but now I'm becoming convinced that MBA types cannot, generally speaking, found successful companies.


> Yet why have MBA types come to dominate the ranks of the startup scene?

Have they? I wasn't aware that MBAs were infiltrating the startup scene? Would be interested to hear about some examples.

Edit: I totally agree that MBAs shouldn't be let anywhere near a startup.


William Hewlett and David Packard, for a textbook example of a company built by engineers and then plundered by administrators.


The article looked familiar, and it turns out that I had read the author's book on the same subject published several years later. It goes into a lot more detail about the author's personal experiences in the management consulting business, plus much more history WRT MBA programs and where the whole concept of management as a standalone discipline came from.

It's not my field so I don't know how fair the criticisms were. Still, it was a really interesting window into an area that overlaps quite a bit with the tech industry.

Anyhoo, the book that emerged from this article is "The Management Myth: Debunking Modern Business Philosophy":

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B002PQ7B72/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?...


Companies hire M.B.A.'s and consulting firms because management is so hard. Alas, I think the fundamental reason for this is that the human psyche was designed by evolution to operate in small foraging bands, not large, hierarchical organizations, and it is really hard to get anything so unnatural to work very well.


There's many reasons to hire firms besides the one you defend. From the OP:

> In one episode, when I got involved in winding up the failed subsidiary of a large European bank, I noticed on the expense ledger that a rival consulting firm had racked up $5 million in fees from the same subsidiary. “They were supposed to save the business,” said one client manager, rolling his eyes. “Actually,” he corrected himself, “they were supposed to keep the illusion going long enough for the boss to find a new job.”


I've witnessed this approach several times. Another variant That requires extra sociopath points is the double down strategy.

In one case, the principal hired a big consulting firm to the tune of $10M, and created some crazy project that fucked up that part of the company badly. The principal sucked up to some industry group, got a big award, and subsequently got a big promotion and shoved some cannon fodder into his old job.

Next step: cut off the funding oxygen, yank all of the consultants, and blame everything on the new people.


My belief is that, after working in a couple of dysfunctional companies, organization design with proper work and communication processes, and effective management, is the "secret" to company success. Almost no one seems to understand what management is and that it is a job in itself, just like being a designer or engineer is.

That being said, I've studied management and agree that as it's being taught it is indeed inane. Currently, I'm learning how to not manage a company by working as a grunt and being managed. I think this experience will be very valuable in the future as I intent to start a company.


Can you walk us through your idea of the daily work of a manager, since you say it's "a job in itself"? I understand that if you give a person a title and tell them to sit around for 40 hours a week and collect a paycheck, they'll invent ways to stretch that out, but in real terms, what are the daily objectives that a manager must address? How many people can one manage before they need to commit their attention 100% to management? 10 subordinates? 5? 1? Is someone not a "real manager" as long as they have time to do code work on the side? Is a manager who does code automatically less qualified than one that would ensure his managerial duties exclude any time for other pursuits? Is someone only a legitimate "manager" if they went to school for it? Can it be self-taught?

I've had management positions before so I have my own answers to these questions, but I'm curious about yours.


> My belief is that, after working in a couple of dysfunctional companies, organization design with proper work and communication processes, and effective management,]

These are principles that people generally agree with. However, applying them with force from the top can do more harm than good. You can have a couple of possible outcomes:

* The process will be badly designed and ignored. * The process will be badly designed and not ignored.

Designing good systems is very difficult and needs to be based on evidence.


They provide intellectual cover. When you're approaching some completely new line of business, any early decisions you make are bound to be educated guesses. Management consultants are paid to come in, act confident, make wild guesses with apparent certainty, and give you something tangible to show to your backers that you're taking the smartest path. It's simulataneously worthless and extremely valuable.

My current project was strategized, scoped and planned by McKinsey before we even drew the first wireframe. They spent 6 months coming up with a framework that was completely wiped out in the next 6 months. They provided no tangible benefit to the finished project, but who knows if they would have even gotten budget approval without their magical slideshows and spreadsheets.



A point-of-view from the essay is the author dislikes employees who can't think critically.

The big issue I have with the piece is that poor critical thinking skills isn't an issue with only MBAs. Every field and every degree has a spectrum of people with poor critical thinking skills to good critical thinking skills.

So yes, dumbly putting up a client-facing diagram of a 5 forces analysis might be pretty stupid, but knowing to think about the role government might play in the firm's ability to capture profits is good practice.

Similarly in hardware, blindly following a manufacturer's board layout is dumb too if you don't understand the specific needs of your application and how the schematic and board might change.


Inability to think critically or be creative often come as a result of management. Positions are too narrowly defined, so operators lack context for their work. Without information, you literally can't think at all.


>Inability to think critically or be creative often come as a result of management.

Unfortunately, in my experience management does not want you to think critically. They want you to do what you are told.

From the article: >... the science of handling pig iron is so great and amounts to so much that it is impossible for the man who is best suited to this type of work to understand the principles of this science, or even to work in accordance with these principles, without the aid of a man better educated than he is.

This is so accurate a description of management in my experience. Unfortunately, I have not always worked for the best companies, but I don't know if it's the same at the best places.


To put slightly positive spin on that, is being uncreative not a benefit in management? In my experience, those that are creative (although that's a pretty nebulous term) seem to, as a rule, be fairly—deeply uncomfortable in management positions, because creativity is curtailed - more prosaic organisational skills are more important.


You don't take an MBA to learn how to manage people.

An MBA teaches you about the fundamentals of business and organizations: Finance, economics, microeconomics, marketing, accounting, management accounting, and a lot of stuff in between.

MBA's are 'business wonks' - they may or may not make good leaders or managers.

The tool of the software developer is code, the tool of the MBA is a spreadsheet or an analysis framework.

It's not remotely about people skills.


Check out this recent article from The Economist:

Nothing special: MBAs are no longer prized by employers

http://www.economist.com/whichmba/nothing-special-mbas-are-n...

I think this is just the beginning of a much longer trend in management reform.


That article doesn't look at if or how a MBA brings value. It mainly points out that a MBA is not a differentiating factor in easily finding a high-paying job, unless it was acquired from a highly regarded MBA program anymore. The reason being that, since MBA programs are money makers for their teaching institutions, they expanded like any rabbit population would do without predation, and with rabbits also getting into the Matrix, since you can earn a MBA from the cozy cushion of your pillow in your bedroom.


Management is sort of like dating, in that there are so many complexities and hidden variables that you have to go by instinct and experience. I don't see how it can be taught well in school. Try to use empathy and don't make enemies, I guess. Be careful about what you say to both your manager and underlings.


Good article. Presumably because I did something bad in a previous life I apparently have a PhD in information systems management (fortunately these days I make my living by bending computers to do my will instead). The whole field is infested with ideology. One reason I'm a failed academic is because of the whole prioritisation of convention over a logical evaluation of the actual problem space. Because I prioritised the latter over the former (and my subfield was especially ideological) I worked more slowly than those making convention-based shortcuts. On the other hand my thesis was accepted with spelling mistake corrections required only :P.

Also I was unaware of Taylor's fudging of his data. Nobody ever draws attention to that, and presumably when I was reading the originals I skimmed that part due to looking for specific information which never made it into later write-ups as I couldn't make it relevant enough to my narrative (thus I never re-read the originals).


Mintzberg's work on the structure of organisations, and what's been built on top of it on the other hand is quite interesting. Glouberman and Mintzberg's followup work on organisational structure in healthcare is pretty good too (wrong but good). Glouberman is a philosopher too which fortuitously makes things relevant to the OP.

They make a differentiation between cure (doctors) versus care (nurses). I'm feel that computer hackers are rather like doctors and nurses in that regard. High levels of professional autonomy and prioritisation for the doctor level hackers (e.g. I've been given Dr House level free reign to diagnose and cure a system that's been sick for at lest the last two-ish years, and nobody else has been able to work out what's wrong with it). Junior devs are more like nurses, working under direction to treat symptoms to make the patient better but where the architectural considerations are less important.

We currently have a Clinical Nurse Specialist level hacker trying to bolt some new behaviour on top of a very sick subsystem (written back in the day when nobody knew what they were doing). I'm interested to see what he makes of it - he already dismissed extending the subsystem out of hand, and justifiably so, so I'm looking forward to seeing his next decisions.


I apparently have a PhD in information systems management

I honestly didn't know that was possible.


yep, baffles me as well. Also the fact that it got through with spelling mistake corrections only :o


Well, I did study BA 1.5 years (for free in DK) and I have mixed feelings. From one end, it's just what the author says as there is a lot of fluff floating around. From another end, though, we did a lot of field studies, which included inferencial statistics, that focused on teaching how to properly test theories. Look, the business world is full of complex issues that need research, humans are difficult. The problem with MBAs is that they don't take BA research very seriously - they pretend to teach academic papers just by reading the abstracts and the easy material. Core competency is actually a great line of research, unfortunately by the time it reaches those doing an MBA it has been stripped of all the useful parts and it has become a mere slogan.


The basic thing about the MBA is that it boils down the inner workings of a widget factory to generic parts.

This is all well and good when your inputs are chips or bolts, but when they are humans things break down fast.


I am a bit perplexed. I think there is a mechanism to prevent duplicate postings on HN?!

Wonder what happened to the filter? I posted this same article earlier: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11928990


I'm somewhat unclear why management consultants are hired.

1. Is it to help management solve problems they can't themselves solve? 2. Is it to show and teach how to manage? 3. Is it to help improve the management process and organizational structure?


You missed the most important reason! To have an "objective outsider" look at a business issue in an "unbiased" way.

Please note my quotation marks.

When I was a consultant, the purpose of hiring us ranged from a temporary extra pair of hands to the above. Most projects were somewhere in between.

In terms of the "unbiased view", every single company knew what they should do. These were smart people. However, internal politics prevented them from getting the ok from leadership. So, you hire an outside consulting firm and when someone says "that's a bad idea" you hold up the McKinsey deck and say "these smart guys think it's the right decision".

Works nearly every time.


It works the other way around too: consultants make very convenient scapegoats, which allow managers and executives to push for change (via the consultants they hire) without risking their own neck.


This thread of thoughts is the reality I have seen first hand.

Management consultants are simply there for often political reasons. Sometimes as an extra pair of hands, but often not.

In addition to the reasons given, it was also sometimes as simple as inept ivory tower management having lost faith in group and deciding they needed to hire real pros to come in and fix things. Another one: Management never wants to point the finger at themselves. They hire some real pros to come in and lay down what went wrong. I hated that job--swimming in bullshit all day every day.

I have so many ridiculous stories I've experienced in my short time doing that kind of work that I don't think the average person would believe.


You get a fuckton of this in government as well.

Want to do something, but you know the public will riot if you propose it? Hire some big name consultancy to write a report that basically deliver the same message, but now with an air of clinical objectivity...


I've no idea either - tbh it's quite possible that it ends up being the blind leading the blind, but if you're paying hefty fees it feels like you're actually doing something.

Related note - The Armando Iannucci Shows (by "Veep" creator, about 10 years beforehand) tackled Management Consultants very well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSJggp-mbiA&t=0m58s


Really, what can i say other than a good piece of writing that essentially matches my own conclusions and experience (and of course, I'm biased because I have the philosophy degree like the author and, now having worked for government and a big private corp, though I've not had the "pleasure" for working for a consulting firm, I have had the "pleasure" of working with them when hired by senior executives). I feel I need to comment just so this article generates some discussion/anecdotes.

All I can really conclude is that it seems to me to be common practice to look to consultancy either when you:

-don't know what you're doing and from a merit point of view probably shouldn't be in the job you're in

-you just need temporary labor without the problems/responsibilities of permanent employees

-you need to hide/cover-up/massage something

-you have a friend at the consultancy and you just continually hire/swap jobs while managing other people's money/resources and funnel it to each other

-or...possibly combined with all of the above, you need to hide your work/non-work behind a veneer of social prestige and acceptability: if profits increase, you take credit, if it fails (and if you actually measure whether it fails you'll be in the minority), well, you can't be blamed, I mean you hired the best consultancy...i mean...they have letters next to their names and everything (well, more commonly everything except experience in the business they're consulting about).

But in this sense, the management class and consultancy are beginning to blend together: its just all about image, project confidence, never introspect or question or measure anything properly, don't hold them to account, and remember...and the end of the day its about networks, how much you get paid in fees and bonuses, and your next job. No one's going to investigate your claims of past success anyway since its all behind NDA's and corporate veils.

Unfortunately, I don't know what kind of legal position I will be in if I actually talk about some of the...err..."interesting" experiences I've had, and the people in these industries obviously have to protect their reputations (since that's about all they have) so I'll just take a quick quote from the article:

"As I plowed through my shelfload of bad management books, I beheld a discipline that consists mainly of unverifiable propositions and cryptic anecdotes, is rarely if ever held accountable, and produces an inordinate number of catastrophically bad writers. It was all too familiar. There are, however, at least two crucial differences between philosophers and their wayward cousins. The first and most important is that philosophers are much better at knowing what they don’t know. The second is money. In a sense, management theory is what happens to philosophers when you pay them too much."


The first myth of management is that it exists.

http://www.murphys-laws.com/murphy/murphy-technology.html


That list is funny.

My preferred line is the first one: "Logic is a systematic method of coming to the wrong conclusion with confidence". It applies to so many behaviors in various fields.

Then there is one I am not sure I agree with, it really depends on what "level of management" means: "The degree of technical competence is inversely proportional to the level of management". In my experience, technically-challenged engineers, but who somehow end up with management/supervision roles, also s.ck at that too, big time, so much that you'd wish there was a universal law against it.


Horrible idea of course, but I wonder if there are companies who pick CEOs randomly from new MBA graduates and pay them an extremely high salary with no stock options or other incentives.


I think you may have the beginning of experimental setup to test the hypothesis that the value brought by a MBA is not different than zero.


Set a philosopher to catch a bullshitter. Nice.


People interested in the topic of the great farce that is modern business management should read in Jeffrey Pfeffer's Leadership Bullshit that also criticizes the management industry as well as modern corporations' incentive structures for leaders that make the optimum choice for leaders to lie and deceive.


From Ben Rich's biography, about Harvard Business School: 2/3 HBS == BS.


Brilliant article. I only wish I'd read it 10 years ago...


I agree up to a point, but I doubt any successful business was run by managers who communicated in the style of Heidegger.


No love for the typical MBA consultant here, but one thing they seem to have over the philosophy crowd? Brevity. Good lord this post needs an editor.


His review of the literature is old too, with his primary sources being nearly a century old. If he had done a more comprehensive review, he would have found much of value.

For example, there is no doubt that management philosophies from Japan (like ZQC or the Toyota way) have had an influence on American production. Is that all imaginary? Because US auto quality seems to have improved significantly as a result.


Stewart did read the modern literature. He found it lacking. Addressed in the article's 4th paragraph:

After I left the consulting business, in a reversal of the usual order of things, I decided to check out the management literature. Partly, I wanted to “process” my own experience and find out what I had missed in skipping business school. Partly, I had a lot of time on my hands. As I plowed through tomes on competitive strategy, business process re-engineering, and the like, not once did I catch myself thinking, Damn! If only I had known this sooner! Instead, I found myself thinking things I never thought I’d think, like, I’d rather be reading Heidegger! It was a disturbing experience. It thickened the mystery around the question that had nagged me from the start of my business career: Why does management education exist?

Moreover: he's hammering home the point that management science isn't much evolved from its early pig-iron days.

Something which I, having studied economics in school, am finding applies rather well to economics as well. A discipline which is curiously ignorant of its own history.


Stewart did read the modern literature.

He might have. He didn't quote any of it.


He does, in fact, quote and cite multiple sources. Michael Porter. Marvin Bower. James C. Worthy. Tom Burns and G. M. Stalker. Tom Peters. Gifford Pinchot. Karl Popper.

Perhaps not modern enough for you, though works through the 1990s are mentioned. None are "century old". Not at the time Stewart wrote, not now.

How about you assert what specific sources are missing?


That's kind of the point, though, he's showing the roots of modern management practices go back to that era.


That's fine for a history lesson, but it's not very useful for supporting his thesis that management theory is useless.

Using the same technique, you could show that chemistry is useless by showing that the roots of modern chemistry go back to alchemy. What a useless bunch of fluff that stuff was!



He also needs to read some economic textbooks (finance and accounting wouldn't hurt either).


Accounting would likely help much more than the other two...


Some people enjoy reading for its own sake.


to say philosophy majors are better managers than mbas already shows that the person doesnt know what an mba is.

mbas can go any number of directions, and while one clearly does not need an mba to be a good manager, most (actually all) mbas I know that did go into management are much better at it than the philosophy majors I know.

Edit: I also wanted to say that the management classes I did take were super interesting. Management 101 is more like a psychology class than I would have expected. Also, I'm pretty sure the author got an MBA between 2008 and 2010


After taking management courses at a local community college, I was underwhelmed by the management courses at my state university's Top 15 Management College.

The community college had courses on interpersonal management techniques, and the purpose of a manager in a company. (Hint: It's to find and remove a worker's blockers, not to brow-beat lazy workers.) Though designed for front-line supervisors and other low-middle management, it was some of the best management education I've ever received. I was stunned not to find any similar courses at the higher level.


I am a consultant, usually not in management, and management is about actually participating and propping up, rationalizing, and preventing the firm from dying confronted with management dictats such as:

> Our firm wasn’t about bureaucratic control and robotic efficiency in the pursuit of profit. It was about love.

As opposed to bursting out in laughter.

I'll admit: I failed on this one.


What I found works best is that you assume that successful managers are just lucky. Treat them like an addicted gambler and you will be successful. More of what they think made them successful, never pointing out the odds and the fact that you'd expect people to succeed on occasion with pure randomness.

Treat them like they know best and never pin them down demanding a response from them, because they don't have an answer, just "work" to create an answer. Yes technical people who bubble up are an exception to this for the first few years of being manager but it doesn't last.


Believe me it gets worse when you teach on management subjects ... Judging by your comment I might have flagged you as a "good" student.




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