THE ONLY bad thing about going on holiday last month was missing the chance to take part in a Today programme discussion on the state of management: how has it changed over the past 40 years, and for better or worse?
Good question. If I had been able to get a word in edgeways, this is what I would have wanted to say: Yes, of course management has changed - but behind a surface gain in 'professionalism', I fear for the worse as much as for the better.
There is certainly a lot more of it about. Where 40 years ago there were just two UK business schools, now there are more than 100, and business is the single most popular undergraduate degree. But business schools are only a part of what has become a management industry in its own right, with a full cast of ideas entrepreneurs (gurus and authors), mass infrastructure and 'solution' providers (IT firms and consultancies), educators, and of course promoters and hucksters (PR and press) - all of it eventually paid for, directly or indirectly, by the client.
Feeding off itself, this bubbling ecology has generated a ferment of new products and relationships - from offshoring to corporate social responsibility, customer relations management to coaching - none of which existed 40 years ago. If a problem can be expressed in words, someone will write a software 'solution' to manage it.
Alas, more doesn't mean better. Much of this swirling management activity adds no value, and indeed hides the wood within the trees. It is, to put it politely, management auto-stimulation, which exists only because the main management effort of the past four decades has been perversely channelled up a dead end.
The distinguished systems theorist Russ Ackoff describes the trap as 'doing the wrong thing righter'. 'The righter we do the wrong thing,' he explains, 'the wronger we become. When we make a mistake doing the wrong thing and correct it, we become wronger. When we make a mistake doing the right thing and correct it, we become righter. Therefore, it is better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right.' Most of our current problems are, he says, the result of policymakers and managers busting a gut to do the wrong thing right.
The wrong thing that the entire management industry has spent the past 40 years trying to put right is mass production command and control. 'We are committed,' as Ackoff also notes, 'to a market economy at the national [macro] level, and to a non-market, centrally planned, hierarchically managed [micro] economy within most corporations.'
We know that central planning doesn't - can't - work. But, my goodness, that doesn't stop people trying. The result is an increasingly vicious circle in which each effort to control the uncontrollable simply destabilises the system further, provoking yet more frantic efforts to get things back in hand. So the end of management becomes control rather than creation of resources. When Peter Drucker lamented that so much of management consists in making it difficult for people to work, he meant it literally.
In the private sector the ratchet is reflected in the ever greater sacrifice that seems to demanded for every new unit of 'progress' - tighter performance management, less job security, not even a pension in retirement. In the public sector, look no further than the NHS, spending terrifying amounts on reorganisation after reorganisation with no attendant increase in productivity, and managers everywhere so busy chasing targets that they have no time to do the work that matters to patients.
The waste of resource is bad enough. But the doomsday scenario is that management ends up making the wrong thing 'right'. In management, as in the social sciences generally, expectation is, if not everything, a powerful amplifier for both good and ill. Inherent in command and control is the assumption that human beings can't be trusted on their own to do what's needed. Hierarchy and tight supervision are required to tell them what to do. So, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, fear-driven, hierarchical organisations turn people into untrustworthy opportunists - and the control freaks say: 'I told you so.'
The gleam of hope is that if we appreciate the power of expectation and can distinguish the wrong thing from the right, we can rewind the nightmare complications of the past 40 years. Organisations that treat people as optimists who want to do a good job can create the conditions in which creative optimists succeed, abolishing the need for expensive control. Taking orders from customers rather than the chief executive means they can dispense with both the apparatus of planning and scheduling to second-guess what people want and the machinery of persuasion to make them buy what they otherwise wouldn't.
Doing the right thing requires less management, not more. Management badly needs its William of Occam: 'No more things should be presumed to exist than absolutely necessary.' I suspect John Humphrys would have agreed.
The Observer, 1 October 2006