By Gordon Rugg
Popular management texts can be wonderful if you’re having a bad day. You simply dip into an accessibly-written text, and soon you encounter uplifting, edifying stories about real people who went through experiences much more traumatic than your bad day, and who then went on to accomplish amazing things. Stories like those can lift the spirits wonderfully, and fill you with new resolve and hope, at least until the next email or phone call comes along to plunge you back into the here and now.
Or, if you’re of a cynical nature, stories like those can leave you wondering whether you might be able to sell some gold bricks to anyone who believes the aforesaid tales.
So where does the truth lie? That’s the topic of this article, which takes us from management theory into the lives of saints, and into good old schema theory and cherry picking.
Images from Wikipedia; details at the end of this article
If you explore enough of the nooks and crannies of academia, you start spotting similarities between areas that didn’t initially appear to have much in common. One of those similarities is between management textbook stories and stories of the lives of saints. There’s an entire field of scholarship, called hagiography, which deals with stories about saints, and it’s fascinating.
There are some common patterns in the saintly stories.
One pattern involves the saint abandoning their previous faith, and then choosing to die under horrible torture rather than renounce their faith.
You don’t see that storyline very often in management textbooks, for some reason. However, you do often see another common saintly storyline, which is shown below, alongside its management equivalent.
This looks like a classic case of the same underlying schema (i.e. mental template) being used in two different areas. That, in itself, isn’t necessarily a problem. The potential problem is the bit about the protagonist doing something wonderful.
In the case of the saints, some of the reported wonders were pretty impressive by anyone’s standards. Saint Columba, for instance, who is the man with the crozier outside the castle in the rightmost image at the start of this article, is reported to have scared away a monster at Loch Ness after it had killed a man. He also reportedly raised at least one man from the dead (though not the man killed by the monster; that might have been considered a miracle too many for one story).
Some people might wonder whether those miracles all happened exactly as reported. Some people might likewise wonder whether all the wonderful achievements in the management theory stories also happened exactly as reported. They might in addition wonder whether everyone who tried the new management theory also accomplished wonders, or whether the reports only mentioned the handful of cases where the theory worked, and carefully omitted a much larger number of cases where it didn’t.
To quote a classic line from British television: I couldn’t possibly comment.
Returning to the question of where the truth lies in the stories: Truth is a slippery concept.
In some fields, such as education and training, new methods often do initially work better than the old methods, because of issues such as the placebo effect, and self-selection among the people who use the new methods. Usually the early adopters are bright and keen, so they can get more or less anything to work. In addition, there’s a sporting chance that they’ll actually use the method correctly, rather than using a distorted, misunderstood, cheap version of it; doing things correctly is usually a good idea.
In other fields, there’s a cycle where a theory’s drawbacks lead to it being abandoned in favour of a new theory without those drawbacks; however, the new theory will itself have drawbacks, so it will in turn be abandoned, often in favour of a dusted-off version of the old theory, usually with a new name, a flashy new set of attached buzzwords, and some go-faster stripes.
So how can you tell where a particular new idea falls on the spectrum from glittering truth to glittering fool’s gold? Numbers are a good touchstone. If the story has lots of colourful detail about just one case, then you may be right to be suspicious. If the story has a solid set of numbers and statistics behind it, particularly if they’re boring ones rather than flashy ones, then it may be worth further investigation.
On which inspiring note, I’ll end.
Notes and links:
You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.
There’s more about the underlying theory in my latest book, Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese
Why scientific writing is deliberately boring:
Cherry picking, i.e. selecting unrepresentative examples and pretending that they’re representative:
Schema theory and mental templates:
Overviews of the articles on this blog:
Sources of images in the banner: