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What’s wrong with Management Research?

In a recent article Dennis Tourish, Professor of Leadership and Organization Studies at the University of Sussex Business School, 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 that’s wrong with management research – 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 of Amy Cuddy and her 2010 research on Power Posing, which made it to a celebrated Ted Talk and a highly sold book. The original study was made of only 42 subjects, and subsequent research, led by 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? 

Dennis Tourish, Everything that’s wrong with management research – in 5 minutes

Interesting to note also how much of past research has used the wrong tools, as, for example, Todd Rose points out in The End of Average. 

Not a new issue: Kahneman’s Point of View.

While reading Daniel Kahneman “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, I had already found traces about business books not always being entirely scientific. For example, he writes about the famous book by Jim Collins Built to Last. 

The basic message of Built to Last 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 mirages

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Kahneman cites Philip Rosenzweig’s book The Halo Effect (which made it to my reading list) going quickly to the core of its message:

[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 let’s 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, Ed Catmull’s 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 the positive message that some of these books carry, but so does a lot of fiction literature. The issue, as Dennis Tourish points, is about how does a manager then takes decisions, if these are not based on scientifically proven facts? It’s like we ask everybody to get back to the “gut feeling”, maybe influenced by the best writing author?

A Way Out

Fig.1: We need not fall into loving just our ideas. Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

Now that we understand What’s 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, demanding more accuracy and trustworthiness. 

Responsible Research

A network on Responsible Research in Business and Management has been formed and wants to tackle precisely this issue. An Executive Briefing explains the idea, together with a well-established position paper. This is for sure a way through, especially if it’s able to drive extensive acquisitions across academics and practitioners alike. For sure, it’s about also telling the negative stories of what doesn’t 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. 

Responsible Consulting

We don’t have to overlook the role of consulting in this. Because in many cases these are the powerhouses of new managerial thinking. I’m 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 established benchmarking. And through this, we always look for what “others” have done, without necessarily having fact proven shreds of evidence of accurate results. Not everything can live into categories or Cartesian diagrams. 

Managerial Openness

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. I’m always puzzled when I see business conferences attendance. Those that take part are looking for the easy recipe to be immediately applied. This does not exist. What we are missing is the idea of “Generally Accepted Management Principles” 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 always a simple explanation behind every issue. 

Conclusion: A new era of Management Research

This is not about not reading anymore. I recall the very beginning of my professional career, when I assisted my mentor at that time, Franco D’Egidio to write the book La Nuova Bussola del Manager (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 “academic evidence” I was used to, coming out to University. The new book became a fine balance of study and simplified concepts, because, in his words, managers don’t 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, continue to read as much as possible, with solid critical thinking. Stimulate curiosity and interact as much as possible with the academic world also to enable better collaboration and understanding.

And you? What do you think?

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

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Sergio Caredda

Digital Knowmad | Multipotentialite | HR Leader | Transformation Agent | Future of Work thinker | On a mission to re-embed Human into HR.

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  • For many years of my career, I was very against "managerial" or "leadership" courses and training for this very reason. Trained as an engineer, I found a lot of the research was not convincing enough. Until I took a (now discontinued) professional course at Stanford University, which mandated leadership classes with Profs. Bob Sutton, Huggy Rao and Jeff Pfeffer. The proposed "evidence-based management" (https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/publications/evidence-based-management) changed my view on leadership and management. I am now taking graduate classes at the Management Science and Engineering department and I find that the less subjective, more quantitative approach works well not just in business decisions, but also in personal decisions - such as, should one take the CoVID-19 vaccine, if so, which vaccine should one take? I believe algorithmic analysis is one of the recommendations from Prof. Kahnemann as well in his latest book "Noise".

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