Management theory evolves as societies and technologies change. Of course the evolution of the theories relies on the theoreticians recognizing when their ideas are out of sync with a changing environment.

It often happens that theoreticians get too invested in the explanations they learned in church or in college. The first time a fundamentalist christian begins to understand Adam Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand” of the market economy, it can be tempting to associate that notion with his or her belief in the “hand of God”. Once that happens, it can be very difficult for the theoretician to adapt to a changing world, since their economic theory is too closely tied to a perceived “fundamental religious truth”.

For the rest of us – the great unwashed who aren’t theoreticians – we studied economics and management theories when we were studying business administration, accounting, marketing or engineering. For most of us this usually means we’re too busy doing what we specialized in, to concern ourselves with management theory.

Reasons for Skepticism

For my part I found myself doubting much of what I learned in college for a couple of reasons:

  1. My management and cost accounting courses used case studies more relevant to large, public companies than the companies I generally work with on a day to day basis. There is simply no comparison between the needs and capabilities of these large or mid-sized manufacturing companies and those of the small freelancers and teams of 4 to 20 people that I actually worked with.
  2. The state – and cost – of technology available when I studied at college, bore no resemblance to what is available today.

Just as important, it was becoming clear that many of the assumptions that society had with respect to business were simply wrong:

  1. My clients – and the community at large – seemed to glamorize risk-taking as a kind of “badge of honour” for entrepreneurs. It didn’t make sense to me that small businesses should embrace risk-taking, while large businesses did everything they could to manage and reduce risk.
  2. Today’s technology is powerful. However, embracing and adapting new technologies to traditional businesses takes time and creativity. It isn’t always immediately apparent how to use these capabilities effectively.
  3. Social media is everywhere. A great many businesses are pressured to believe that they should embrace social media as a fundamental piece in their marketing strategy. For many service businesses in particular, an online presence may not warrant the investment to make it work.
  4. Angel investors and venture capitalists are seen by many as risk-taking cowboys in a brave new world. I’m concerned that they spend too much time looking for unicorns. When someone believes in fairy tales, I take their judgement in other matters with a grain of salt. Just because someone made a lot of money doing something before, doesn’t mean that we should hang on every word. They could have been lucky – or they may simply be trying to pump third rate investments before dumping them on an unsuspecting and gullible public.

Missing Elements in our Timeline

In the timeline shown above, I’m afraid I’ve missed out a number of very important societal developments:

  1. the settlement of western north america – referred to as “colonization” by our first peoples
  2. the industrial revolution
  3. urbanization
  4. the Russian revolution
  5. the “baby boom”
  6. globalization

…and of course I’ve ignored the incredible technological advancements in the past one hundred years, that appears to be accelerating as I write this. Each of those 6 societal developments could easily be added somewhere in the middle of our timeline.

However our interest should instead be focused on the last 4 data points on our timeline.

TOYOTA

Toyota’s “Just-In-Time” inventory and their agile approach to development have been studied and embraced more than one subsequent generation.

ENRON

The Enron & Worldcom financial scandals that lead to the economic meltdown in 2008 also continue to have relevance.

LEAN STARTUP

The importance of the lean startup movement is in my view, that the emphasis was placed on startups. While small business has always been the engine of our economy, management theory in universities has always focused on large companies. In fact the larger the company, the more interest and attention paid to them by both academics and governments.

Perhaps this is because the people that create management theory invariably work for larger companies and/or universities. You don’t spend 8 years earning an MBA or a CPA designation to get a job in a fast food joint. In a similar vein, government bureaucrats generally prefer to deal with larger business. These same bureaucrats are much more likely to leave the security and comfort of a government job, to work in a large private company than the same fish and chip restaurant.

Consider a tax auditor meeting with the CFO of Shopify or the tax director at CIBC in Toronto. You would expect him or her to be better prepared – and more deferential – than when meeting the bookkeeper at a corner grocery store.

GREAT MAN

The reason older founders are ignored by the ecosystem is the same reason why women and other minorities struggle in the Valley: It’s really not about what you build, but what you look like while building it. 

Danny Crichton (TechCrunch 2018)

These days we’re enamored with “entrepreneurs” and risk taking. As a society, we seem intent on reverse engineering the success of “great” men. Perhaps we’re hoping to discover the secret path to success. While the risk-taking CEO might make for a good series on NetFlix, in reality most successful companies manage risk. For the most part, people who take too many risks fail and we don’t hear from them again.