In the week in which Apple TV released their new documentary “The Year Earth Changed” with commentary by David Attenborough, which looks at the surprising liberation of wild animals around the world as humans pause their usual activities, we challenge the status quo of managing through fads and tools that prevent us seeing beyond the myopic horizons of our normality.
Compere: Imagine the scenario: This week we announce the winners of the 2020 Thinkers50 Awards. Break open the champagne, raise your glasses. The toast is the world’s top 50 management thinkers, their inspiration and the valuable contributions they continue to make to our society.
A Cynic: (Interrupting the proceedings) Excuse me. Did I hear that correctly? You mean to say that this gang of academics and consultants who earn their living from touting banal fictions concerning human enterprise, who trip over common sense and rebrand it as innovation, who help their clients manufacture growth via greed are getting all the accolades? That’s a bit rich. Is this some kind of joke? It’s a hoax right?
Compere: Au contraire my friend. The world at large is indebted to these management pioneers. It would be pretty mean-spirited of you to deny the impact these people and their ideas have had on business leadership today. Why our largest and most successful corporations would be totally different were it not for these gurus. You of all people should know that.
Cynic: Oh, I am not doubting their impact for one minute – just the nature of the results. From what I have seen the consequences from their decidedly unoriginal ‘ideas’ disrupt business, often pointlessly; connect only tenuously with the real world; perpetuate myths that are unsustainable; and act as an intolerable burden on most of humanity. Besides, their popularity, though on the decline, is almost exclusively the result of gullible senior executives who are too lazy to think for themselves.
Compere: My oh my – you are such a misanthropist. I don’t see why I should even bother to argue with you. You appear to have such a jaundiced view of these thought leaders! Can you not at least appreciate their originality and good intentions?
Cynic: Now I know you are in jest. Show me the tiniest crumb of thought leadership. Explain to me how common sense ideas like ‘money is not a motivator’ or ‘seeking dissent need to be more common’ help create a better world for anyone other than the authors. Tell me how they give hope and create a revitalised sense of purpose for people living in rural Cambodia, Bolivia or Zaire – or Spain for that matter.
As for their intention, surely that is to make more money for themselves and increase the likelihood of their own promotion? I do not impugn such goals. Money makes the world go around, right? But let us be absolutely frank. Setting aside a few authentically innovative concepts that have revolutionised the field of management, like Deming’s slant on Quality Control, for example, or Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Model, most new management ideas are either worthless fads or petty scams: designed to have a limited shelf life they hoodwink executives into believing they must keep on changing, so as to keep on growing. But hello! The world does not need more growth. Nor does it need greater wealth – at least not in developed countries.
The lack of intelligence and inventiveness displayed by these Top50 management thinkers is pitiful. If they were practitioners in any other field they would be held up to ridicule. As it is they are shameless – permitting the persistence of a social monoculture and a business ethos, invariably expressed in daft cliches, that has lost all meaning and that has brought our society to the brink of collapse. Perhaps the successful extinction of humanitarian ideals should be the toast?
Compere: Bunkum. (Turns to audience who are beginning to fidget uncomfortably in their seats) All this talk about civilisational collapse is just scare tactics conjured up by socialist renegades and anarchists like Mr Cynic. You’re unsettling our audience with such talk. I assume you also believe in all this commons guff, shared value and ethical capitalism? Now there’s a fairy tale if ever there was one! Let’s get back on track.
(Confronts Cynic angrily) You have disrupted these proceedings long enough. Will you at least concede the veracity of these management ideas you seem to despise in context? We are indifferent to the developing world here. Look at the first world – all the great advances in management have come from the US or Europe. Countries like the US, the UK, Germany and Scandinavia, for example, where the entire economy is based upon the implementation of these ideas, have benefitted massively from our Top50 thinkers.
Cynic: Indeed they have. And look where it has got them. Disaster capitalism spreads like wildfire in countries already addicted to growth at any cost. Driven by a mix of scarcity and greed, the enduring impulse of most Western corporations remains the creation of obscene wealth for absurdly small numbers of people. And to hell with the rest.
Compere: (Protesting) But they really are the best. We scoured the world to get this ranking. Most executives in this room would not agree with your assessment.
Cynic: (Laughing hysterically) How do you have the effrontery to call your Top50 awards the best management ideas in the world? I had not realised Europe and the US had re-assigned themselves as such. Where are the voices representing Brazil, China, South Africa, Australia, Singapore, South East Asia or even Japan for God’s sake? Do all the best ideas come from Harvard and Oxford? Is that what you are asserting?
Compere: Don’t be silly. There are no original management ideas coming out of those countries. The US is pre-eminent in management innovation.
Cynic: Is that so? Tell me then why the US economy is moribund. Explain to me why US companies are still attached to ideas that defy gravity and ignore what it means to be a normal loving human being. I admit that some of these notions have been the drivers of innovation, a few decades ago. Today creativity and invention has been replaced by arrogance and corruption. These days America is severely lacking in transparency, collaboration, empathy and resourcefulness.
Meanwhile these gurus you sanctify by putting them on a pedestal incite consultants, who advise Boards, that preside over a domestic economy in a worse state than that of Nicaragua. Aided by Donald Trump and his lackeys, America has had its heart ripped out and trampled on by policies aimed at favouring the wealthy and marginalising the poor. Even the middle class, the engine of productivity, is suffering. But the truly terrifying vision is that the US is still hell bent on exporting its corporate ideology of rampant growth and consumerism to the rest of the world. And nobody is game enough to tell them to stop it.
Compere: I have heard enough. By denigrating the winner of the 2020 Top50 Thinkers in this manner you are also belittling our advisors and sponsors. (Points to people sitting at the front table) That is both petty and mean. I strongly suspect your critique is driven by pure ignorance and envy…
Cynic: (Choking back laughter) Come off it. On your website you state that these ideas have the power to change the world. When? Seriously though. I am sure your sponsors and advisors cannot be as naive as you claim. I know where they work. Any fool can see they have vested interests in promoting the ideas of your so-called gurus – whether through books, academia, public speaking or consulting; the method matters not.
Sales volume is the goal. So they are not innocent by any stretch of the imagination. Complicit actors in conjuring the illusion you are perpetuating, their role in decking out cognitive compost as intellectual treasure is undeniable. You must have heard the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes. Voila! When all is said and done your sponsors are just endorsing a carnival of trivial ideas. The Emperor is naked. I realise you are only the compere, but I’m not sure how you can keep a straight face at such shenanigans! (Cannot control his laughter any longer)
Compere: Perhaps you had better leave.
Cynic: (Stumbling out, the tears streaming down his face) Perhaps I should at that!
[With sincere apologies to any friends or colleagues likely to be offended by the caustic nature of this essay. Also to those few genuine thought leaders (they know who they are) who are not charlatans and who recognise the truth when they hear it.]