In this article, the author shows that many fads and fashions in management are short lived and based upon flimsy evidence, yet enjoy a period of support. His arguments are important tools for managers who want to understand the substance and rigour, or lack of it, associated with modern management ideas and concepts.
The management world is highly susceptible to crazes: fads and fashions that change as frequently as clothes styles. And just like clothes styles, some come back again after “a few years” away, repackaged, rebranded, but essentially the same.
A fad is a craze for something: a short time when there is an exaggerated zeal for a particular idea or practice. Fads are by definition short-lived. They go in one ear and out the other. Fads are very popular in business, driven by a heady mix of desperate and naïve managers as well as avaricious consultants.
Worst, fallacious concepts are found in abundance in management. These are usually processes that simply do not work in the way they are said to. Brainstorming is a good example. Study after study shows that individuals working alone produce both more and better ideas than brainstorming groups. Brainstorming is a fallacy or a myth. But only one of many because of the essential non- or at least pre-scientific nature of management theory.
Another recent example is Rob Briner’s brilliant analysis of the current fad for Engagement at Work1. He argued that researchers need to consider five key challenges facing the field: defining engagement; measuring engagement; whether Engagement is new or different; whether there is any good quality evidence with which to answer the most important questions about engagement; and the extent to which over-claiming and mis-claiming the importance and role of engagement occurs.
This is what he concluded: “In the end we need to make a choice. Do we want to take employee engagement seriously or not? There are two contrasting approaches. The first is to closely examine definitions, check out the validity of measures, question whether it is new and different, carefully identify the quality of the available evidence and what it is capable of telling us, and to be accurate and explicit about what we know and do not know about the importance and role of employee engagement. The second approach is to be relaxed about definitions, not get too involved in considering the validity of measures of employee engagement, claim it’s something new and different without really backing it up, ignore the fact that there is at the present time little good quality evidence, and over- and mis-claim the importance of employee engagement. What’s your choice?”
The renaming and repackaging of old ideas is well known. In psychology the Jingle-Jangle fallacy refers to the specious idea that two different things are the same because they bear the same name (jingle fallacy) or that two identical or very similar concepts are different because they have different labels (jangle fallacy).
For the psychology test developer, the jangle fallacy describes the inference that two tests with different names/labels measure quite different constructs/ideas. On the other hand, a jingle fallacy is based on the assumption that two measures with the same name measure the same construct.
The question is what jingles and why and what jangles and why? But fashions change; ideas and measures need revitalisation. So it is not difficult to take an old test and idea and repackage it. And that is, of course, what many do.
It is manufacturers who prefer the jingle fallacy. Notice how the cheaper store’s product has a name and package almost identical to the much more expensive, exclusive brand. They want you to think that a thing with a near identical name, colour, and label is essentially the same at half the price.
This can happen in the consultancy and testing world, where someone has had a monopoly for a famous, expensive and well-known product. The jinglers provide a very similar, much cheaper version that tries to capture the market.
The question for psychometricians and managers alike is the underlying test validity of both.
Shapiro defined Fad Surfing thus: “The practice of riding the crest of the latest management panacea and then paddling out again just in time to ride the next one; always absorbing for managers and lucrative for consultants; frequently disastrous for organisations” (pxiii)2. She argues that the business world is full of “breakthroughs” to achieve “world-class” results. “The hard truth is that there are no panaceas. What is new is the sheer number of techniques, some new and some newly repackaged versions of older methods that are now positioned as panaceas. What is not new is the need for the courage to manage: to assess situations, set an overall course or focus, think through options, develop plans, take action, modify plans, learn and go forward. In my view, in the age of instant answers, this courage is more valuable than ever”(pxvii).
Some fads mentioned are:
• Fads in planning. One of the fashionable ideas is strategic alliance, which means that companies cooperate, as in forming a joint venture, often across national boundaries. Airlines, telecommunications companies, and car manufacturers do this.
• Fads in organising. Corporate culture refers to the values and beliefs shared by employees and the general patterns of their behaviour. Some believe that if this is planned, designed and controlled correctly that all the ills of the organisation will be solved.
• Fads in staffing. Organisations have to be staffed by people who are not only competent but also healthy. This requires wellness or fitness programmes and the management of stress.
• Paying for performance. Paying for performance is also currently fashionable. This means measuring the contributions of individuals and rewarding them accordingly, although the problems of measuring performances are often overlooked. Another current popular idea is demassing, or down- or right-sizing, which is a euphemism for laying off employees or demoting managers (usually middle managers).
• Fads in leading. An Intrapreneur is a person who acts like an entrepreneur but does so within the organisational environment. Intrapreneurs have been described as “those who take hands-on responsibility for creating innovation of any kind within an organisation”. Organisations are meant to chase and foster these people.
• Fads in controlling. Quality circles, widely used in Japan, are seen as a way of improving quality and making US products more competitive. These have been set up all over the place.
Note how odd some of those ideas sound. The reason? Those were the fads of 20 years ago!
The Life History of a Fad
This often follows a very predictable pattern.
1. Academic discovery: Many faddish ideas can be traced to the stuffy and unfaddish world of academia. A modest discovery may result in an academic paper that shows the causal link between two factors relevant to work situations. These papers are not only dry and complicated but also cautious. Academics underline the complexity of all the actual and possible factors involved. Few are interested in immediate applications. Their job is to understand, and definitely not change, the world.
2. Description of the study: This process can last a long time and usually involves a lot of elaboration and distortion. Someone reads the paper and provides a summary which probably leaves out the complexities. Often, the discovery is mentioned in a high-powered presentation. Others hear it and repeat it, each time simplifying it. With every repetition, the findings become stronger and the complexity weaker. Selective memory ensures that the crucial findings are recorded and embellished. At this stage it is unlikely that the researcher would recognise the findings as his or her own. It is the first step on the rood to a fad.
3. Popularisation is a bestseller: The next stage is usually the big one. A business writer or guru hears about the finding and gives it a catchy title. One single, simple idea becomes a book. Indeed, that is why business books are so easy to read and precise: there is really very little in them. The average manager reads a few reviews of the book and may even go so far as to buy it. He or she is envious of the seemingly powerful results that occur when the technique is followed. It is at this stage that the fad becomes a buzzword and something every manager feels they should both know about and implement.
4. Consultant hype and universalisation: It is not the academic or the author who powers the fad but an array of management consultants trying to look as if they are on the cutting edge of management theory. Because the concepts are easy to understand and said to have wide application, the consultants seek to apply them everywhere (at a price, of course). The word spreads like wildfire. Soon it seems everyone has to be empowered, re-engineered or 360ed – everyone needs emotional intelligence training. Those who do not climb aboard are made to feel like fuddy-duddies and, in the words of Dilbert, doomed.
5. Total commitment by true believers: At this point, the evangelists move from the consultants to the managers. For a small number of companies the technique seems to have brought quick, massive benefits. They become willing product champions. No one dares to be sceptical and challenge the “evidence of success”. With hindsight it is sometimes difficult to explain why the technique should have had such an impact. Psychologists often explain it in terms of the “Hawthorne effect” – whereby workers boost their performance when attention is paid to them – or the placebo effect. They also sometimes talk of “spontaneous remission”, meaning things get better of their own accord. In fact, years after the fad has passed, there are little outstations of believers who keep the faith.
6. Doubt, scepticism, cynicism and defection: After years of heavy product selling, the appetite for the fad diminishes. The market becomes saturated. “New and improved” versions are introduced. But the enthusiasm is gone. Then the mudslide begins. There is managerial doubt, then academic scepticism, followed by journalistic cynicism and consultant defection. The process starts with people pointing out the poor cost-benefit consequences of introducing the fad. Or it may occur because someone goes back to the original finding and discovers the yawning gap between what was initially demonstrated and what is now done. Then management journalists smell blood. It is easy to find disaffected disbelieving managers happy to squeal. They point to the hundreds of thousands spent for little reward. The consultants who were eager to pick up the fad are the first to drop it. What once gave them credibility now makes them look like con-artists. They move on smartly.
7. New discoveries: The end of one fad is an ideal time for trainers, writers and consultants to spot a gap in the market. They know there is an unquenchable thirst for magic solutions. The really clever people begin to sense when the previous fad is nearing the end of its natural life, so they have just enough time to write their best-sellers to catch the market at the beginning.
How long does the typical fad last? It depends on the zeitgeist; on whether there is a bull or a bear market, and on the entrepreneurial hunger of authors and consultants. But what is clear is that there are as many middle-aged fashion victims as young ones.
Concentrating almost exclusively on higher education, Burnbaum looked at the life cycle of a fad from early enthusiasm, widespread dissemination, subsequent disappointment and eventual decline.3 His model has five stages: Creation with an idea supported by advocates/consultants who provide dramatic unverified narratives. The sample technique offers extraordinary outcomes. It is both necessary and sufficient to transform the whole organisation/sector. Narrative evolution where “stories” grow in every sense. A few counter-narratives are rejected and labelled apologetic, conservative, wasteful and self-interested. Time lag where fad adopters begin to evaluate the fad more independently and objectively. Acceptance of the fad peaks and cautionary stories arise. Narrative devolution occurs with increasing reports of failure and dissatisfaction. Disinterested reviews report original claims were over-stated and progress either never achieved or sustained. Resolution of Dissonance of the failure of the fad: lack of leadership, intransigence of the followers, improper implementation or lack of resources. Some keep the faith by blaming others which allows for the idea behind the fad to be relabelled for future use.
Bacal and Associates’ website listed 10 fads at the turn of the century, now mostly consigned to history: One-Minute Management; Total Quality Management; Learning Organisations; Peak Performance; Excellence; Chaos; MBO; Matrix Management; Team-Based Management; and Process Re-engineering.4
They suggest that faddish management techniques do have substance and often have the potential to improve organisations. They argued that fads have a positive side: they provoke thought and discussion; they do produce change causing organisations to question their existing approach; they energise managers by providing a sense of excitement; and they popularise management ideas.
On the negative side, however, they waste vast sums of time and money, and cause cynicism. Indeed a failed implementation of a fad can result in making future improvements more difficult. They can often backfire. If the rhetoric of the fad does not ring with reality there can only be problems ahead.
They offer six pieces of advice to prevent one from being a victim of a well-publicised, but in effect, misleading fad:
1. Be sure you fully understand the technique before proceeding.
2. Fads are tools: managers need to fully understand why they are using them and how they can measure their outcome.
3. It is easy to create the appearance of change and a sense of activity. It’s harder to make sure the change is both real and beneficial.
4. Stick with the fad: steer a steady course. Don’t be put off by initial failure or resistance. It takes time for processes and procedures to bed down.
5. Be prepared to put in considerable effort to evaluate/measure the effects/outcomes of the fad. Most individual measures are flawed but having a number of different types of measures surely gives a good sense of what is going on.
6. Don’t regret a fad because it’s too popular. Look at the substance of the idea, not the fashion.
Fashions in Management
Thinking scientifically is a skill. Scepticism is healthy; cynicism is not. In order to be a discriminating “purchaser” of management ideas we need to evaluate the evidence for them. Our inability to think critically will be all too quickly exploited by those eager to sell us a half-baked idea or process. It pays to learn the tricks of the trade from both sides: the tricks of the con artist and the criticisms of the scientists. Slowly we are acquiring evidence based management science. It’s difficult, expensive and often disappointing to try to prove a product or process works. But necessary.
Fashions are prevailing and short-lived customs. They represent the prevailing style in a particular period and could be said to characterise it. Oscar Wilde said a fashion was that by which the fantastic momentarily becomes the universal. He also said that it is a form of ugliness so intolerable that it needs to be altered every six months. Indeed the surest way to be out of fashion tomorrow is to be in the forefront of it today.
I have listed management fashions between 1950 and 2000 years.
And now? To sell their wares, consultants need to keep up with current trends. So Leadership Agility is in, really in, but Emotional Intelligence seems a tad past its sell-by date. How about the following do you agree?
How are fads different from fashions? They appear to differ on three dimensions, at least in terms of management. First, fashions last longer than fads. Second, fads are often “wackier”, more unorthodox than fashions that are usually functional. Third, fashions tend less to be guru and consultant driven than fads; they are often responses to business necessity.
As customers change, organisations have to also. Fashions may be responses to fads. But all managers would ideally be pro-active rather than re-active. It is always better to be a leader rather than a follower. Just as there are fashion victims with respect to clothes, so there are victims in management.
Management is tough; there are no magic bullets or pills. It is a complex contact sport. And no, the magic prefix “neuro” is not the answer, though it may be heralding in a fad as the magneto-phrenologists play with their new toys. Neuro-management/marketing/motivation sounds sexy but is a long way from being the solution to all your problems.
Adrian Furnham is Professor at University College London, the Norwegian Business School and the University of KwaZulu Natal. He has written 80 books and 1200 peer-reviewed papers.
1. Briner, R. (2014). The Future of Engagement. University of Bath Business School
2. Shapiro, E. (1996) Fad surfing in the boardroom. Oxford: Capslon
3. Burnbaum, R (2000) The life cycle of academic management fads. Journal of Higher Education, 71, 1-16.
4. Bacal & Associates Business & Management Supersite (2002) Management Fads – Things you should know. //www.911.com/articles.mgmtfad.htm