The Myth of the Management Myth

On a plane yesterday I read a truly awful new article in The Atlantic. Called “The Management Myth”, it is nominally about how management theory is a waste, MBAs are dangerous, philosophy rules, and consultants are nasties.

Writer Matthew Stewart (an Oxford-educated philosopher, as he insists on reminding readers) accomplished the impossible. He made me like management theory, MBAs, and consultants more, while liking philosophy (and Oxford philosophers) less. The article was disjointed, dull, obvious, smug, poorly written, and full of falsely-elevated faux philosophy chatter.

It also relied heavily on the author’s supposed insider-y consulting chops — we are told repeatedly that he founded a major consulting firm, but not which one — only to find out that his firm was a failed bubble creation at which he had only worked for four years:

By a strange twist of fate, I owe the longevity of my consulting career [ed. Elsewhere he says seven years] to this circumstance. When I first announced my intention to withdraw from the firm in order to pursue my vocation as an unpublishable philosopher at large, my partners let me know that they would gladly regard my investment in the firm as a selfless contribution to their financial well-being. By the time I managed to extricate myself from their loving embrace, nearly three years later [ed., 7 - 3 = 4], the partnership had for other reasons descended into the kind of Hobbesian war of all against all from which only the lawyers emerge smiling. The firm was temporarily rescued by a dot-com company, but with a year both the savior and the saved collapsed in a richly deserved bankruptcy.

To summarize in English: Stewart started an unnamed firm, and tried to exit mid-bubble four years later; his partners didn’t want to buy his equity, so he sued them. By the time he got his shares bought three years later the firm had imploded. I may have some of the precise details wrong, but that’s seemingly the essence. Not to be unnecessarily harsh, but who the hell cares what someone like this has to say about management theory, especially if the article is disjointed, dull, obvious, smug, poorly written, and full of falsely-elevated faux philosophy chatter.

As an aside, Nick Carr likes it. He’s wrong, but it’s nice to know Stewart has a constituency among ex-consultants-turned writers out there.

[Update] Courtesy of some sleuthing by reader James, here is a snippet of a story detailing how consultant Stewart’s consultancy folded into the soon-defunct USWeb.  So, the remaining question: When did Stewart really leave Mitchell Madison?

Mitchell Madison joins the computer age

Like AT Kearney, acquired by EDS, Mitchell Madison has been acquired by a company with a technological bent. In July 1999, USWeb/CKS, a Web services agency based in California, announced an agreement to acquire MMG for about $300 million. The deal has US Web/CKS issuing 14.4 million shares of MMG over the following two years. USWeb/CKS will employ MMG’s 550 consultants, and Tom Steiner, the managing partner of MMG, will become the COO and President of USWeb/CKS. In its press release regarding the acquisition, the firm said that MMG “capped USWeb/CKS’s dream of bringing capability in technology, marketing, and strategy to its clients.” New partner US Web/CKS is even younger than MMG – it was founded in 1997.

MMG was fully intergrated into USWeb/CKS in March, 2000. The three companies are now known as marchFIRST.

Related posts:

  1. Google Management Opts Out of Options
  2. The Myth of the Serial Entrepreneur — Part II
  3. The Myth of the Myth of Disruptive Technology
  4. The Art of Expectation Management
  5. The Myth of the Serial Entrepreneur

Comments

  1. ooh, that hurts…I had to check you didn’t go toe Cambridge…
    seriously though, not sure why he has to take us through so much of his personal background (get a frigging blog and tell us there) but he does make a valid point – there are too many academics and consultants telling people how to execute.
    It’s one thing for Jack Welch, but for PhD’s and folks who have never run a plant or a salesforce?

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    Paul — I didn’t love the article, but I thought it made some worthwhile points which you didn’t mention in your litany of negative adjectives mostly about Stewart’s style….

  3. Ben — Maybe I’ve been around this stuff too long, but he said nothing I haven’t heard many times, better written. Combine poor writing with obviousness, and with suspect bona fides, and guess what, it gets my hackles up.

  4. The Management Myth is a fantastic article. Any article that can cause such duality amongst a readership is a worthwhile one in my opinion.

  5. Mark Steele says:

    Russell Ackoff, professor emeritus of the Wharton school and one of the deans of the systems thinking movement also made many criticisms of both management education and management “gurus”. He, of course, criticized from a more credible position. In addition, he employed more effective reasoning and actually provided suggestions for improvements. For examples see “A Major Mistake Managers Make” at http://www.acasa.upenn.edu/A_MAJOR_MISTAKE.pdf and “On Misdirecting Management” at http://www.sociate.com/blog/archives/2003_02_01_archive.html#90370976

  6. hongkonger says:

    Stewart’s most salient point is that MBAs are trained to b.s. at a very high level, but their mumbo-jumbo doesn’t stand up to rigorous logic or analysis. In many cases they’re just making this stuff up, and businesses would be better served by someone with a strong liberal arts background who can tell it straight, Stewart proclaims. My own view is that business schools (and the MBA fraternity) would love nothing more than to have board certification of senior managers (as is done for MDs and JDs) as a way of legitimating their priestly caste and circumscribing the universe of people eligible for all those overpaid jobs. Naturally MBAs don’t like to hear that they are intellectual midgets, but show me an MBA who can hold his or her own in a conversation about philosophy, literature, or culture in general and I’ll buy you a drink.

  7. brian says:

    Case in point: We currently have a president who is a Harvard MBA, class of 1975. When he speaks candidly, the man can hardly string together two, multisyllabical words, much less discuss complex ideas. Yet, this man’s brand of leadership is characterized precisely by paranoic secrecy, self aggrandizement, personal greed, and school-yard bullying. These are hardly the enlightened principles upon which the Founding Fathers relied to govern our country. History, not I, will prove his degree of efficacy as president.
    Nevertheless, this is precisely the point that Stewart is making. An MBA hardly corners the market on intellectual prowess.