How management fads rise (and fall)

19 May 2016 -


Management has always been faddish, but what causes them to catch on, or fade off into a distant memory?

Guest blogger Adrian Furnham

What ever happened to quality circles and management seminars? And what about all that enthusiasm for empowerment and re-engineering? Does your boss still “manage by wandering about” or is that a thing of the past? Can you recite your company vision, departmental mission or personal job statement or is that all old hat?

Management is notoriously faddish as stressed and troubled managers try to find cheap, quick and effective solutions to the intractable problems like overweight adults they seek one miracle cure after another seeming never to have learnt that they do not exist.

The celery diet, the hip and thigh diet, the Atkins diet…all promise more than they can deliver and get quickly forgotten.

1. Academic Discovery: Other faddish ideas can be traced to the stuffy and distinctly unfaddish world of academia. A modest discovery may result in a pretty indigestible paper. Traditionally they show the causal link between two factors relevant to work situations. But these papers are not only dry and complicated but they are cautious. There are a lot of “perhaps”, “notwithstanding”, “towards”. Academics often call for replication, more research, they are hesitant and underline the complexity of all the actual and possible factors involved. And few are interested in immediate application. Their job is understanding the process not changing the world.

2. Description of the Study: This process can last a long time, it usually involves a lot of elaboration and distortion in the process. Someone reads the paper and provides a summary. The summary may be verbal and if so may end a little like Chinese whispers. Often the discovery is mentioned in a brainy presentation. Others hear it and repeat it. But with every repetition the findings become stronger and the complexity weaker. Selective memory ensures that the crucial findings are recorded and embellished. At this stage it is unlikely that the researcher would recognise the findings as theirs in the first place.

3. Popularisation in a Best Seller: The next stage is the big one. A business writer/guru takes up the call, hears about the finding gives it a catchy title and before you know what the fad is about to begin. That one single and simple idea soon became a book.

Indeed that is why business books are so easy to read and precise, there is really very little in them. The best seller with a snappy title, publisher hype…and the rest mean that the average manager at least reads a few reviews of the book. He or she may even buy it but many are content to hear the gist from reviewers. And they are frequently envious of seemingly powerful results that occur when the process is followed. It is at this stage that the fad becomes a buzzword.

4. Consultant Hype and Universalisation: It is not the academic or the author that really powers the fad but an army of management consultants trying to look as if they are on the cutting edge of management theory. Because the concepts are easy to understand and said to have wide application the consultants seek to apply then everywhere. And the word spreads like wildfire.

Soon it seems everyone has to be empowered, re-engineered, 360°-ed, etc. Those who don’t climb aboard are made to feel left out, fuddy-duddy, even bad for their shareholders.

5. Total Commitment by true believers: At this point the evangelists move from the consultants to the managers. For a small number of companies the technique seems to have brought quick, massive benefits. They become happy and willing product champions, which only serves to sell more books and fan the fires of faddishness.

With hindsight it is sometimes difficult to explain why the effect had such an impact on the view. Psychologists often explain this in terms of the Hawthorn effect or placebo effect. The former refers to the way people are treated differently (irrespective of what the technique recommends) while the latter refers to the sugar pull effect, where simply believing that it will do you good is enough.

In fact years after the fad had passed there are little outstations of believers who continue to be the faithful. In line they are quiet reminders of the past as they cling on. The Amish of management they resolutely cling onto their old ways.

6. Doubt, Scepticism, Cynicism and Defection: After pride comes the fall. After a few years of heavy product selling, the appetite for the fad becomes diminished. The market is saturated. Various “new and improved” or just as likely “shorter and simpler” versions of the fad are introduced. But it is apparent that the enthusiasm is gone.

Then the avalanche or mudslide begins. It begins with managerial doubt and then academic scepticism, followed by journalistic cynicism, and finally consultant defection. It may be that the whole process starts with people pointing out the poor cost-benefit analysis of introducing the fad. Or it may occur because someone goes back to the original finding and shows that the gap has widened so much between what was initially demonstrated and what is now done is so large that the two are different species.

Then management journalists smell blood. It is easy to find disaffected managers happy to squeal. They point out the thousands, spent for little reward and the incredible consultant hype the whole thing has become. A trickle becomes a stream and then a river. And the consultants who were so eager to pick up the fad are the first to drop it. What gave them both credibility and massive “invoicability” now makes them look con-artists as they distance themselves from the fad.

7. New Discoveries: The end of one fad is an ideal time for trainers, writers and consultants to spot a gap in the market. They know there is an incurable thirst for magic bullet, fix-all, solutions so the whole process starts again. The really clever people begin to sense when the previous fad is reaching its zenith so that they have just enough time to write their best seller to get the market just right.

How long does the typical fad last? It depends on the zeitgeist; whether there is a bull or bear market and on the entrepreneurial hunger of authors and consultants. But what is clear is that there are as many middle aged fashions victims as young ones.

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