In a recent articleÂ Dennis Tourish,Â Professor of Leadership and Organization Studies at the University of Sussex Business School,Â argues that there is a lot wrong in current Management Research.
The careers of management academics, of whom I am one, depend on publishing in top tier journals. The more sensational the claims we make, the greater our notoriety and the faster we climb the greasy pole. There is an ever present temptation to cut methodological corners, hide weaknesses in our data and exaggerate our findings.Dennis Tourish, Everything thatâs wrong with management research â in 5 minutes
He makes several examples on some of the shortcuts that at least some researchers on management take. Most notably, the fact that some studies have a too-small sample of people that is subject to the survey. An element often relevant in psychological studies. The example he uses is that ofÂ Amy CuddyÂ and her 2010 research onÂ Power Posing, which made it to a celebratedÂ Ted TalkÂ and a highlyÂ sold book. The original study was made of only 42 subjects, and subsequent research, led byÂ Eva Ranehill, on a number 5 time more significant, did not support any of her findings. Yet Power Posing is still widely used in presentation techniques courses.
How many such claims rest on inadequate sample sizes, insufficiently rigorous analyses, over-hyping by authors keen to make an impact, and on occasional outright fraud?ÂDennis Tourish, Everything thatâs wrong with management research â in 5 minutes
Interesting to note also how much of past research has used the wrong tools, as, for example, Todd Rose points out inÂ The End of Average.Â
While readingÂ Daniel Kahneman âThinking, Fast and Slowâ, I had already found traces about business books not always being entirely scientific. For example, he writes about the famous book by Jim CollinsÂ Built to Last.Â
The basic message ofÂ Built to LastÂ and other similar books is that good managerial practices can be identified and that good practices will be rewarded by good results. Both messages are overstated. The comparison of firms that have been more or less successful is to a significant extent a comparison between firms that have been more or less lucky. Knowing the importance of luck, you should be particularly suspicious when highly consistent patterns emerge from the comparison of successful and less successful firms. In the presence of randomness, regular patterns can only be miragesDaniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
[Rosenzweig] concludes that stories of success and failure consistently exaggerate the impact of leadership style and management practices on firm outcomes, and thus their message is rarely useful.Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
Which goes back to many of the business books we read around, way often focused on one or two psychological concepts, with conclusions that all together seem too good to be true. Because letâs face it, way too often this is the sensation that is left by reading some of the books, where recipes that are too simple, get in our minds quickly. But what about concrete applications?
Stories of how businesses rise and fall strike a chord with readers by offering what the human mind needs: a simple message of triumph and failure that identifies clear causes and ignores the determinative power of luck and the inevitability of regression. These stories induce and maintain an illusion of understanding, imparting lessons of little enduring value to readers who are all too eager to believe them.Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
This is the reason why I hold of such high esteem the last book I have reviewed,Â Ed CatmullâsÂ Creativity inc. He made a case study of his personal story at Pixar, deriving some lessons, but not expecting hat this can be easily applied everywhere. For sure, there is still value in theÂ positive message that some of these books carry,Â but so does a lot of fiction literature. The issue, as Dennis Tourish points, is aboutÂ how does a manager then takes decisions, if these are not based on scientifically proven facts? Itâs like we ask everybody to get back to the âgut feelingâ, maybe influenced by the best writing author?
Now that we understand Whatâs wrong with Management Research, is there something we can do? I see three specific horizons where work should be done. And companies should take the lead,Â demandingÂ more accuracy and trustworthiness.Â
A network onÂ Responsible Research in Business and ManagementÂ has been formed and wants to tackle precisely this issue. AnÂ Executive BriefingÂ explains the idea, together with a well-establishedÂ position paper. This is for sure a way through, especially if itâs able to drive extensive acquisitions across academicsÂ andÂ practitioners alike. For sure, itâs about alsoÂ telling the negative stories of what doesnât work in management. But it is also about focusing on what is essential, and writing in more clear ways, that can be consumed by managers.Â
We donât have to overlook the role of consulting in this. Because in many cases these are the powerhouses of new managerial thinking. Iâm not referring only to the big consulting firms, but also the small ones. New insights are used across the board without too much fact-checking. We are all victims of what consulting itself has establishedÂ benchmarking. And through this, we always look for what âothersâ have done, without necessarily having fact proven shreds of evidence of accurate results.Â Not everything can live into categories or Cartesian diagrams.Â
We also need managers and executives to be more open to the outside world both in terms of allowing researchers to study their concrete cases and interacting with others. Iâm always puzzled when I see business conferences attendance. Those that take part are looking for the easy recipe to be immediately applied.Â This does not exist. What we are missing is the idea of âGenerally Accepted Management Principlesâ that can be used as a minimum denominator across the world to drive the discussion. We also have to escape the idea that there is alwaysÂ a simple explanationÂ behind every issue.Â
This is not about not reading anymore. I recall the very beginning of my professional career, when I assisted my mentor at that time,Â Franco DâEgidioÂ to write the bookÂ La Nuova Bussola del ManagerÂ (the new managerial compass). He was back then one of the most prolific management authors in Italy. I had challenged the fact that some of his books lacked the âacademic evidenceâ I was used to, coming out to University. The new book became a fine balance of study and simplified concepts, because, in his words,Â managers donât need ready to apply models, but real food for thought that can sediment and enable the decision-making process. The most significant testimony that he was right is linked to the fact that most management concepts we are discussing today (often with now solid academic research in the background), where present already in the core of that book.
For me, this also means,Â continue to read as much as possible, with solid criticalÂ thinking. StimulateÂ curiosityÂ and interact as much as possible with the academic world also to enable better collaboration and understanding.
And you? What do you think?
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