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Truth #63 About Managing People: Beware of the Quick Fix

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Too many modern managers are like compulsive dieters. They try the latest craze for a few days (or months), and then move restlessly on to the next craze. The sad news for managers is the same that we'd offer dieters: There is no quick fix!

Too many modern managers are like compulsive dieters. They try the latest craze for a few days (or months), and then move restlessly on to the next craze. The sad news for managers is the same that we'd offer dieters: There is no quick fix!

That said, there is no shortage of consultants, management-development professionals, and business journalists ready to pitch instant solutions to complex management problems. They've been doing it for more than four decades. In the 1960s, the list of "instant panaceas" included MBO; Planning, Programming, and Budgeting Systems (PPBS); Theory Y management; sensitivity training; job enrichment; PERT; and the BCG Matrix. In the 1970s, you had centralized strategic planning, matrix organization designs, management by committee, flextime, and zero-base budgeting. The 1980s gave us intrapreneurship, quality circles, Theory Z, just-in-time inventory systems, Deming's 14 principles, self-managed teams, and skunk works. And the 1990s offered up strategic alliances, exploiting core competencies, pay for performance, TQM, reengineering, mass customization, charismatic leadership, visionary leadership, emotional intelligence, boundaryless organizations, learning organizations, outsourcing, and empowerment. While the new century is only a couple of years old, we've already been told about the virtues of work–family balance, e-leadership, virtual organizations, knowledge management, and workplace spirituality.

Managers, like all people, are susceptible to fads. My message here is merely to warn managers: Buyer beware! There will always be someone selling the latest management technique. And unfortunately, rather than being presented in a contingency framework, with recognition that they work best under certain circumstances and are likely to be ineffective in other circumstances, advocates have tended to offer them as instant solutions. At the extreme, it can drive managers to run from one quick fix to another. This was driven home when a frustrated executive recently told me, "In the past couple of years, we've heard that profit is more important than revenue, that quality is more important than profit, that our people are more important than quality, that customers are more important than our people, that big customers are more important than small customers, and that growth is the key to our success."

The common theme among these "quick fixes," like diet books, is that they're sold as universal solutions to complex problems. They're rarely presented in a situational or contingency perspective. And that's the mistake. Each, in its own way, has something to offer managers. These techniques are tools in a tool chest. But just as a carpenter can't solve every problem with a hammer, managers can't solve every problem with self-managed teams or TQM. There are no shortcuts to the complex job of managing. You need to treat new ideas and concepts as tools that can help you be more effective in your job. But no single new idea can make a mediocre manager excellent or lead to turning around a poorly managed company.

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