The 8 Stupidest Management Fads of All Time


Author: Geoffrey James

Into the life of every office worker, some rain must fall… and often that rain takes the form of the latest jackass fad that your management latched onto.  In most cases, a new management fad means endless meetings, new buzzwords for the office toadies, and extra work that ends up either driving you crazy or your company out of business.

This post contains the eight most heinous, stupid, painful and useless management fads that I’ve ever encountered.  It also provides invaluable advice for how to survive the fad until it finally goes away.  (Which it will… eventually.)  Of course, a fad usually goes away because management latched onto a new one, but hey, nobody said work life would be easy.

Stupid Fad #1: Six Sigma

  • The theory: The idea is to improve the quality of your processes by identifying and removing the causes of defects.  You assign various people different colored “belts” (like a karate class) based upon their expertise in the Six Sigma methodology.  You also get a series of defined steps and quantifiable financial targets.
  • The reality: It creates a hierarchy of “belted” experts who run around the company pretending that they know how to do other people’s work better than the people who do the work.  Endless meetings ensue, with little or no effect.  The consulting firm who’s implementing the Six Sigma walks away with a fat paycheck.
  • The result: Wasted time and wasted effort. According to one quality control expert quoted in Fortune magazine, “of 58 large companies that have announced Six Sigma programs, 91 percent have trailed the S&P 500 since.” On the other hand, it’s spawned an entire industry of “consultants” who make a living sucking productivity out of your firm.
  • My opinion of the fad: Oh, please.  Potbellied managers running around with little colored belts like they’re part of some Bruce Lee movie on Bizarro world.  That’s exactly what’s going to help a company get out of the doldrums.  You couldn’t make up this stuff, it’s so incredibly stupid.
  • Likelihood you’ll run into it at least once: 55%
  • Your strategy if you do: If your company implements Six Sigma, you’ll be paying a Six Sigma “tax” for about two years.  Push out all activities by about 20 percent to account for the time wasted in pointless meetings.  After two years, the managers who implemented it will either be fired or move on, in which case the Six Sigma process will fall by the wayside.

Stupid Fad #2: Business Process Reengineering

  • The theory: Analyze the workflows and processes within your organization and rework them to achieve a defined business outcome. Set up cross-functional teams in order to re-engineer separate functional tasks into complete cross-functional processes. Integrate a wide number of business functions through enterprise resource planning, supply chain management, yada-yada-yada, etc., etc.
  • The reality: Forget about redesigning processes.  Reengineering is all about layoffs.  Top management uses the idea to justify firing people in order to make it seem like they’re actually doing something logical, rather than just temporarily boosting the stock price so that their short term stock options pay off big.
  • The result: A string of layoffs, followed by the total collapse of your company.  Probably sooner rather than later.
  • My opinion of the fad: The whole idea is terminally idiotic.  Massively changing a corporation while it’s operating is exactly like trying to redesign and retool an automobile while you’re driving down the highway. In any case, reengineering assumes that corporations fail because of lousy processes, when it’s almost ALWAYS the result of lousy management.
  • Likelihood you’ll run into it at least once: 65%
  • Your strategy if you do: If your company announces that it’s reengineering, update your resume.  Start networking like crazy and line up your new position in another company as soon as possible.  Even if you’re well positioned to survive the layoffs, you won’t want to work there after the reengineering has been going on for a while.  Trust me on this.

Stupid Fad #3: Matrix Management

  • The theory: People with similar skills are pooled for work assignments. For example, all engineers may be in one engineering department and report to an engineering manager, but these same engineers may be assigned to different projects and report to a project manager while working on that project. Therefore, each engineer may have to work under several managers to get their job done.
  • The reality: An endless, debilitating turf war.  Each manager fights to be considered the “real” manager of the personnel.  They do this by forcing everybody to attend required “staff meetings” and by finding extra hoops to jump through and extra rocks to fetch, in order to prove that that they’re the ones who are really in charge.
  • The result: All productive work grinds to an immediate halt.  Management becomes completely consumed in arguments over who will do what and when.  Because the system creates more managers, the organization quickly becomes top heavy.  Eventually, top management figures out that this is a terminally bonehead idea and puts one person in charge.
  • My opinion of the fad: I actually worked in an organization that had matrix management.  Everyone reported to three managers, and each manager insisted upon having a mandatory 3 hour meeting every week (no agenda).  Their manager also required everyone to attend a one hour mandatory meeting every week — to “facilitate communication.”  That was 10 hours — 25% of the work week — wasted in nonsense.
  • Likelihood you’ll run into it at least once: 10%
  • Your Strategy: Make sure you can access the Internet inside your company’s conference room.  During the unending turf hassles, you can answer emails, surf the web, play games, etc.  Otherwise, you have to wait this one out.  It won’t last for more than a year.

Stupid Fad #4: Management by Consensus

  • The theory: Important decisions should be made with the agreement of everybody in the group.  Proposals are  collaboratively developed, and full agreement is a primary objective.  Consensus management is usually seen as an alternative to “top-down” decision making common inside hierarchical organizations.
  • The reality: Since everybody has a say in the decision, anybody can effectively veto any decision.  As a result, only decisions that are completely innocuous and support the status quo are ever made.  Difficult decisions — ones that might ruffle feathers — get quietly shunted aside.
  • The result: Forget the wisdom of crowds.  Crowds are so stupid they can’t even figure out what the crowd is thinking. Specifically, consensus decision-making often results in what’s called “the Abilene paradox,” where a group will unanimously agree on a course of action that no individual member of the group desires because no one is willing to go against the perceived will of the group.
  • My opinion of the fad: Management by consensus like swimming in a pool of quicksand.  Because important decisions never get made, the entire organizations flounders and sinks.  BTW, consensus management sometimes happens accidentally when groups have managers who are afraid to make decisions because somebody who works for them might be offended.
  • Likelihood you’ll run into it at least once: 35%
  • Your strategy if you do: Volunteer to keep minutes of the meeting.  Make the decisions yourself and then pawn them off as consensus.  Nobody will notice unless you get too ambitious, like claiming that the consensus was that everyone should wear their underwear inside out.

Stupid Fad #5: Core Competency

  • The theory: Focus on the one thing that your firm does better than anyone else.  That will make your strategy difficult for competitors to imitate and keep your organization from wasting time doing things that they’re not very good at.
  • The reality: Most organizations, like the managers that run them, are about as self aware as a turnip.  As a result, they seldom know what they’re really good at.  In many cases, organizations think they’re good at something but are actually successful for some completely different reason.
  • The result: Core competence generally ends up as a kind of myth that keeps a company locked into doing what it was successful at doing in the past.  As a result, companies that focus on their core competence soon find that they have competitors running rings around them.
  • My opinion of the fad: Like all management fads, this sounds like a great idea, but it must be implemented by corporate managers, which means that even if it were the most brilliant idea in the world, they would still bollix things up beyond all recognition.
  • Likelihood you’ll run into it at least once: 85%
  • Your strategy if you do: Get involved in the committee that’s suppose to determine the core competence.  Make sure that whatever you do is the company’s core competence.  If you fail, transfer to the group that did win the discussion.

Stupid Fad #6: Management By Objectives

  • The theory: Define objectives within an organization so that management and employees agree to the objectives and understand what they are in the organization. Then compare the employee’s actual performance with the standards set and agreed upon.
  • The reality: Everyone spends hours making plans for the future.  When the future actually happens, it ends up looking nothing like it was originally expected.  As a result, everyone ends up either doing something that might have worked a year ago or doing something that wasn’t in the original plan and then spends extra effort making it look as if they were performing to the plan.
  • The result: Lots and lots of out-of-date planning documents and precious little to show for it.   Success rate in the typical company is supposedly around 6% percent.
  • My opinion of the fad: There’s nothing wrong with having goals and making sure you know what you’re supposed to be doing, but MBO becomes a fad when it’s just part of the same old review process.  Worst case, it turns into a paperwork nightmare that strips flexibility from an organization.
  • Likelihood you’ll run into it at least once: 90%
  • Your strategy if you do: Try to be as vague as possible about your objectives and have multiple ways to get measured, so that no matter what happens you still look like you’ve fulfilled the objective. Above all, don’t feel guilty about gaming the system, because your boss is probably gaming it up the chain anyway.

Fad #7: The Search for Excellence

  • The theory: Solve business problems with as little business process overhead as possible, and empower decision-makers at multiple levels of a company.
  • The reality: At the very least, the data behind the concept is questionable.  Peters was once quoted admitting that he had falsified the underlying data for his book In Search of Excellence. He later retracted that statement.
  • The result: Awful.  Simply awful.  The majority of the companies Peters held out as exemplars ran into all sorts of problems.
  • My opinion of the fad: Ended up as yet another excuse for companies to try to imitate the success of other firms through the use of their “best practices.”  At best, this ends up with a me-too strategy.  At middling, it ends up with a “me-too” strategy that doesn’t make sense for your industry and company.  At worst, you end up successfully implementing a strategy that put another company out of business.
  • Likelihood you’ll run into it at least once: 20%
  • Your strategy if you do: Hard to say.  If your management is still gnawing on this tired old bone, they’re seriously, seriously out of date.  You might try pointing out that Peters has written a number of other books since then, all of which are equally valid (or invalid).  Maybe your manager will hole up and read them all while you get some real work done.

Stupid Fad #8: Management by God

  • The theory: The success of a company is in the hands of God, therefore managers should address daily prayers to God, and ask God questions about the decisions that they have to make.  All decisions should be in alignment with God’s laws.
  • The reality: Managers who think that God is talking to them will almost always discover that God is telling them to do things that are in their own best interests.  At the same time, because they’re pawning off the urgings of their Id on God, they lack the perspective and self-awareness that they’re acting selfishly and are therefore become a royal pain in the tuchus.
  • The result: Employees are forced into mandatory prayer meetings, the primary result of which is to convince them that their manager is a horse’s rear end of stupendous proportions.
  • My opinion of the fad: The horror… The horror…
  • Likelihood you’ll run into it at least once: Blue State: 10%   Red State: 90%
  • Your strategy if you do: There are two approaches.  The first is to ignore it all and spend your prayer meeting time doing other mental exercises, like daydreaming about sports.  A good backup plan is to go around the conference room (mentally) and imagine what it would be like to have sex with each member of the team.  The second approach is to become a complete over-the-top zealot.  Claim that God and a host of angels descended to earth and demanded that you get a 57 percent raise.  Insist that your boss will be damned for all eternity if he doesn’t come through with the extra cash.

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