Models and messes in management – from best practices to appropriate practices
Scientific models and management
Physicists build mathematical models that represent selected aspects of reality. These models are based on a mix of existing knowledge, observations, intuition and mathematical virtuosity. A good example of such a model is Newton’s law of gravity according to which the gravitational force between two objects (planets, apples or whatever) varies in inverse proportion to the square of the distance between them. The model was a brilliant generalization based on observations made by Newton and others (Johannes Kepler, in particular), supplemented by Newton’s insight that the force that keeps the planets revolving round the sun is the same as the one that made that mythical apple fall to earth. In essence Newton’s law tells us that planetary motions are caused by gravity and it tells us – very precisely – the effects of the cause. In short: it embodies a cause-effect relationship.
[Aside: The validity of a physical model depends on how well it stands up to the test of reality. Newton’s law of gravitation is remarkably successful in this regard: among many other things, it is the basis of orbital calculations for all space missions. The mathematical model expressed by Newton’s law is thus an established scientific principle. That said, it should be noted that models of the physical world are always subject to revision in the light of new information. For example, Newton’s law of gravity has been superseded by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Nevertheless for most practical applications it remains perfectly adequate.]
Given the spectacular success of modeling in the physical and natural sciences, it is perhaps unsurprising that early management theorists attempted to follow the same approach. Fredrick Taylor stated this point of view quite clearly in the introduction to his classic monograph, The Principles of Scientific Management. Here are the relevant lines:
This paper has been written…to prove that the best management is a true science, resting upon clearly defined laws, rules and principles, as a foundation. And further to show that the fundamental principles of scientific management are applicable to all human activities, from our simplest individual activities to the work of great corporations, which call for the most elaborate cooperation. And briefly, through a series of illustrations, to convince the reader that whenever these principles are correctly applied, results must follow which are truly astounding…
From this it appears that Taylor’s intent was to prove that management could be reduced to a set of principles that govern all aspects of work in organizations.
The question is: how well did it work?
The origin of best practices
Over time, Taylor’s words were used to justify the imposition of one-size-fits-all management practices that ignored human individuality and uniqueness of organisations. Although, Taylor was aware of these factors, he believed commonalities were more important than differences. This thinking is well and alive to this day: although Taylor’s principles are no longer treated as gospel, their spirit lives on in the notion of standardized best practices.
There are now a plethora of standards or best practices for just about any area of management. They are often sold using scientific language, terms such as principles and proof. Consider the following passage taken from from the Official PRINCE2 site:
Because PRINCE2 is generic and based on proven principles, organisations adopting the method as a standard can substantially improve their organisational capability and maturity across multiple areas of business activity – business change, construction, IT, mergers and acquisitions, research, product development and so on.
There are a couple of other things worth noting in the above passage. First, there is an implied cause-effect relationship between the “proven principles” and improvements in “organizational capability and maturity across multiple areas of business activity.” Second, as alluded to above, the human factor is all but factored out – there is an implication that this generic standard can be implemented by anyone anywhere and the results will inevitably be as “truly astounding” as Taylor claimed.
Why best practices are not the best
There are a number of problems with the notion of a best practice. I discuss these briefly below.
First, every organisation is unique. Yes, much is made of commonalities between organisations, but it is the differences that make them unique. Arguably, it is also the differences that give organisations their edge. As Stanley Deetz mentioned in his 2003 Becker lecture:
In today’s world unless you have exceptionally low labor costs, competitive advantage comes from high creativity, highly committed employees and the ability to customize products. All require a highly involved, participating workforce. Creativity requires letting differences make a difference. Most high-end companies are more dependent on the social and intellectual capital possessed by employees than financial investment.
Thoughtless standardization through the use of best practices is a sure way to lose those differences that could make a difference.
Second, in their paper entitled, De-Contextualising Competence: Can Business Best Practice be Bundled and Sold, Jonathan Wareham and Han Gerrits pointed out that organisations operate in vastly varying cultural and social environments. It is difficult to see how best practice approaches with their one-and-a-half-size –fits-all approach would work.
Third , Wareham and Gerrits also pointed out that best practice is often tacit and socially embedded. This invalidates the notion that it can be transferred from an organization in which it works and to another without substantial change. Context is all important.
Lastly, best practices are generally implemented in response to a perceived problem. However, they often address the symptoms rather than the root cause of the problem. For example, a project management process may attempt to improve delivery by better estimation and planning. However, the underlying cause – which may be poor communication or a dysfunctional relationship between users and the IT department –remains unaddressed.
In his 2003 Becker lecture, Stanley Deetz illustrated this point via the following fable:
… about a company formed by very short people. Since they were all short and they wanted to be highly efficient and cut costs, they chose to build their ceiling short and the doorways shorter so that they could have more work space in the same building. And, they were in fact very successful. As they became more and more successful, however, it became necessary for them to start hiring taller people. And, as they hired more and more tall people, they came to realize that tall people were at a disadvantage at this company because they had to walk around stooped over. They had to duck to go through the doorways and so forth. Of course, they hired organizational consultants to help them with the problem.
Initially they had time-and-motion experts come in. These experts taught teams of people how to walk carefully. Tall members learned to duck in stride so that going through the short doors was minimally inconvenient. And they became more efficient by learning how to walk more properly for their environment. Later, because this wasn’t working so well, they hired psychological consultants. These experts taught greater sensitivity to the difficulties of tall members of the organization. Long-term short members learned tolerance knowing that the tall people would come later to meetings, would be somewhat less able to perform their work well. They provided for tall people networks for support…
The parable is an excellent illustration of how best practices can end up addressing symptoms rather than causes.
Ambiguity + the human factor = a mess
Many organisational problems are ambiguous in that cause-effect relationships are unclear. Consequently, different stakeholders can have wildly different opinions as to what the root cause of a problem is. Moreover, there is no way to conclusively establish the validity of a particular point of view. For example, executives may see a delay in a project as being due to poor project management whereas the project manager might see it as being a consequence of poor scope definition or unreasonable timelines. The cause depends on who you ask and there is no way to establish who is right! Unlike problems in physics, organisational problems have a social dimension.
The visionary Horst Rittel coined the evocative term wicked problem to describe problems that involve many stakeholder groups with diverse and often conflicting perspectives. This makes such problems messy. Indeed, Russell Ackoff referred to wicked problems as messes. In his words, “every problem interacts with other problems and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems…. I choose to call such a system a mess”
Consider an example that is quite common in organisations: the question of how to improve efficiency. Management may frame this issue in terms of tighter managerial control and launch a solution that involves greater oversight. In contrast, a workgroup within the organisation may see their efficiency being impeded by bureaucratic control that results from increased oversight, and thus may believe that the road to efficiency lies in giving workgroups greater autonomy. In this case there is a clear difference between the aims of management (to exert greater control) and those of workgroups (to work autonomously). Ideally, the two ought to talk it over and come up with a commonly agreed approach. Unfortunately they seldom do. The power structure in organisations being what it is, management’s solution usually prevails and, as a consequence, workgroup morale plummets. See this post for an interesting case study on one such situation.
Summing up: a need for appropriate practice, not best practice
The great attraction of best practices, and one of the key reasons for their popularity, is that they offer apparently straightforward solutions to complex problems. However, such problems typically have a social dimension because they affect different stakeholders in different ways. They are messes whose definition depends on who you ask. So there is no agreement on what the problem is, let alone its solution. This fact by itself limits the utility of the best practice approach to organisational problem solving. Purveyors of best practices may use terms like “proven”, “established”, “measurable” etc. to lend an air of scientific respectability to their wares, but the truth is that unless all stakeholders have a shared understanding of the problem and a shared commitment to solving it, the practice will fail.
In our recently published book entitled, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices, Paul Culmsee and I describe in detail the issues with the best practice approach to organisational problem-solving. More important, we provide a practical approach that can help you work with stakeholders to achieve a shared understanding of a problem and a shared commitment to a commonly agreed course of action. The methods we discuss can be used in small settings or larger one, so you will find the book useful regardless of where you sit in your organisation’s hierarchy. In essence our book is a manifesto for replacing the concept of best practice with that of appropriate practice – practice with a human face that is appropriate for you in your organisation and particular situation.