January 24, 2006

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Management Cults & Memetic Viruses

I'm often struck by the similarities between management fashions and organised religions. Putting aside the merits of any specific new management theory or fad, and leaving aside the question of whether any specific religion is based on truth, they have several key characteristics in common.

    * The primary activity of fashions and religions is to recruit new members. Whether they have any inherent merit or not, they often bestow benefits for membership. Most fashions and religions arrange themselves into heirarchies, and newer members tend to be placed below existing members, and existing members tend to derive benefits from new members. The earlier you join, the bigger the benefits. In that sense, they're both a lot like pyramid schemes.
    * People who are active followers of a management fashion, and active members of an organised religion, tend to defend their beliefs extremely vigorously - often in the face of contradictory evidence
    * Most organised religions have special rituals, relics and other artefacts that create a cloud of complexity around the core beliefs - arguably as a mechanism to disguise the holes in their logic. Many management fashions are equally complex and ritualistic, having many layers which, when you've finally peeled them all back, reveal a fundemantal lack of substance. In that sense, they are like chinese puzzle boxes that, once you get them open, turn out to be completely empty.

Take Neuro-Linguistic Programming, for example. The theory behind NLP is that, by carefully choosing your language, you can define your reality and make positive changes in your life. The actual "science" behind it is largely mumbo-jumbo, and only anecdotal evidence exists that it works. It should be pointed out that there's only anecdotal evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, or that the waters at Lourdes can heal the sick. Both claims are unsubstantiated in every other respect.

A friend of mine attended an NLP course in 1998 and commented that, out of the 8 people attending, 7 were studying to become NLP trainers and coaches. NLP may or may not work, but while there are enough people who want to learn NLP, you can make a very good living from it.

I can think of dozens of management ideas that have a similar modus operandi. Whether or not the actual ideas work doesn't seem to matter - the key to a successful fad is how it spreads.

Richard Dawkins likened religion to a virus of ideas that spread from host to host, often to their detriment. The most successful viruses are the ones that exploit the host's behaviour to spread themselves even further. Colds make us sneeze, for example, which is very good news for the cold virus. And apparantly the early symptoms of syphilis include an increased libido.

And so it is with management fashions like NLP, Business Process Re-engineering and their ilk. Whether or not they work - and in the cases of NLP and BPR there's considerable doubt that they do - is not important to their success - just as long as they don't kill the host before it's had a chance to spread the ideas. This often happens through people jumping on the bandwagon to serve their own ends. Think about it - if you can earn more money as a trainer or coach, would you choose to stay and see the project through first? Most consultants are gone long before the host organisation feels any effects. They're happy to ride into town, sell you some snake oil and ride out again. They generally don't stick around to see what the medicine actually does.

Of course, being a trainer and coach myself, I'm no stranger to bandwagons. But, in my defence, I've resisted the temptation to exploit certain fashions just to make more money. I refuse, for example, to promote the idea that "enterprise architecture" can be designed using expensive modeling tools by so-called "enterprise architects". That rules out a lot of potentially very lucrative work for someone who is a skilled modeler - but I just can't maintain the pretence. In my heart of hearts, I believe that architecture cannot be imposed from above. Perhaps that makes me dumb, since there are so many less skilled modelers making lots of money perpetuating the "enterprise architecture" lie.

Much of what I do for clients could be described as de-programming. They are prisoners of one or more management cults, and to rescue them we have to pull their cosy, internally consistent and self-reinforcing delusions apart so they can see the reality for what it is. This can be a painful process, and some clients don't respond well. Like characters in The Matrix, they'd be happier with the illusion - the real world's just to much for them to cope with.

Some clients - or rather, some people working for clients - are active members of a particular management church. By undermining their beliefs - no matter how irrational and harmful they may be - you are actually attacking their position in the grand pyramid. The most heated resistence to change comes from people who have much to lose if a client organisation sees through the illusion. We'd do well to remember that, even though the Wizard of Oz turned out to be nothing more than an illusion, he presented a very real danger to Dorothy.

Anyone who's been burned at the stake will attest to the risks of attempted de-programming.
Posted 15 years, 3 months ago on January 24, 2006