Why Management Ideas Matter

management ideas matter

Who is the most influential living management thinker?

That is the question that the Thinkers50, the biennial global ranking of management thinkers, seeks to answer. But does the ranking or the ideas it celebrates really matter?

It’s a fair question.  In an age of awards overkill, it is tempting to see the ranking as just another example of hubris in the business world. All the more galling when many businesses are struggling.

But, celebrating the very best new thinking in management matters for three reasons.

First, ideas are important. They have the power to change the world.  Think of Copernicus, Socrates, Aristotle, Newton, Galileo, or Einstein. Think of Charles Darwin, the ultimate disruptive innovator.   Ideas define our humanity. They shape the way we think and see our place in the universe.

Equally, in the business world, too, ideas matter — from Steve Jobs to Tim Berners-Lee; and Google to Facebook — new thinkers and new ideas challenge and redefine how we work and live.  An idea can change an entire industry and ideas, from kaizen to the balanced scorecard, continually transform the way we work and lead our businesses.

Second, management matters. It has become fashionable in some places to mock management. Ask someone in the UK what is wrong with the National Health Service, for example, and you are likely to be told that there are too many managers and management consultants and not enough doctors and nurses.  Managers are the fall guys, the scapegoats for organizational excesses, failures and inefficiencies.

Yet, the reality is that management gets things done. The moment you move beyond one or two people working together then some form of management is required. There is nothing new in this. From Alexander the Great to the modern day, the elements of management – from organizational behavior to supply chain management — have made the difference between success and failure.

Just because management has always been with us, it is easy, too, to dismiss the progress that has been made in the last century. Management is often seen as a poor man’s science. (Not so long ago economics suffered a similar fate.) Critics lampoon the latest management buzzwords, labeling them as pretentious and shallow. In truth, though, management has made big strides.

A hundred years ago, we were in the thrall of scientific management. Had there been a Thinkers50 in the early twentieth century, it would have been dominated by one name — Frederick Winslow Taylor. We have moved on since then. One of the achievements of management in the last 20 years is the recognition that management is a fundamentally human activity. It is as much an art as a science.

It is easy to underestimate the influence of management ideas in that process. Notions such as empowerment, championed in the 1980s, and emotional intelligence in the 1990s seem self-evident now. But we have come a long way from Scientific Management and using a stopwatch to manage performance.  Ideas like Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory laid the foundations for that.

Or consider the influence of Clayton Christensen, who tops the Thinkers50 ranking. Christensen’s influence on the business world has been profound. In The Innovator’s Dilemma, he looked at why companies struggle to deal with radical innovation in their markets. The book introduced the idea of disruptive technologies and disruptive innovation to a generation of managers.

Some ideas make us reappraise what we thought we already knew. Until very recently, for example, most managers were (and many still are) convinced that fear and greed were the two primary levers for motivating people.  But Dan Pink’s recent book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us tackles the perennial subject of motivation, and argues that we need to abandon the ineffectual carrot and stick approach, and the importance of doing something we love for a career.

A catalyst for change

The third reason why management ideas matter is that they can be the catalyst for a better future. Management thinking isn’t just relevant to business – it can change the wider world. From building the pyramids to putting a man on the moon, management has always been at the heart of human endeavor. Today, the very best management thinking can address many of the challenges facing the world – from reducing world poverty and crime, to creating more effective healthcare and building a sustainable model of capitalism.

In recent years, for instance, Clayton Christensen has applied his ideas to healthcare and education — showing how enlightened management thinking can tackle the big issues facing society.

The INSEAD professors Chan W. Kim and Renée Maubourgne, Korean and American, respectively, are the authors of Blue Ocean Strategy which has sold over two million copies. Their ideas have been embraced by companies, not-for-profits and national governments around the world.  In 2010, for example, the government of Malaysia launched the third wave of its National Blue Ocean Strategy. A key target is building rural infrastructure – providing housing and water supplies for the rural poor.  The Malaysian Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Najib Razak has said publicly that the blue ocean concept has already proved useful in several government programs.

Ideas change the world. The reaction to Steve Jobs untimely death reminds us of that. Jobs changed how we live our lives with his ideas and products. So too did the late CK Prahalad with his idea of the Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid – which challenged businesses to look for commercial solutions to the problems facing the poorest people on the planet.

An August 2010 blog by Vijay Govindarajan and Christian Sarkar, for example, challenged designers to create a house for $300 and set off a campaign to re-invent housing for the world’s poorest people.

Elsewhere, Linda Scott of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School has explored how a corporate brand can partner with a humanitarian organization to deliver life changing health programs to some of the world’s poorest countries, while also achieving corporate goals. Scott points to the campaign by Procter & Gamble’s Pampers brand of diapers and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in which a vaccine against Maternal and Newborn Tetanus — a killer in the developing world — was donated for every pack purchased under the “1 pack = 1 vaccine” program.

The campaign, initially introduced in December 2004 has so far delivered 300 million vaccines that are helping to protect 100 million women of child-bearing age and their newborns in 26 countries.

New ideas and new approaches are vital to fuel growth and progress. Ideas are not just a luxury for good times; they are even more crucial in challenging times. Fresh thinking is the best antidote for recession — not cutting jobs. What organizations need right now is innovation and new ways of organizing themselves.

The Thinkers50, then, is an attempt to identify the place on the Venn diagram where ideas and management and the wider world intersect. The ideas it celebrates can help us think our way to a brighter future.

Des Dearlove & Stuart Crainer are the founders and directors of the Thinkers50.

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