Suggestions for 2017

As we approach 2017, here are some suggestions for the New Year.

  1. 2017 is the 500th anniversary of theologian Martin Luther’s publication of his Ninety-five Theses that started the Protestant Reformation. If you are a consultant, it is a good time to reassess the current orthodoxies that dominate your consulting and business guru industries. If you are a consumer of business thinking as a business leader, a business school student, or a specialist expert in an organization, it is also time to rethink what you’re buying into.
  2. Read non-business books, journals, or articles to help in your business-related work. Part of challenging the orthodoxy of business thinking is to get more ideas and perspectives from outside the echo chambers of the business world, your industry and your company.
  3. Put your phone on airplane mode or stash it away in another room for chunks of time. Experiment and research have proven that multi-tasking and interrupted attention is a great way to significantly reduce one’s effectiveness and efficiency. Why tie such an anchor around your neck? Instead, put Little’s Law into action and do one thing at a time really well. Engage in deep work. Then you can have your “phone break.”

Point #1: Re-think our assumptions and business orthodoxy.

I have been both a business consultant as well as a manager on the other side of the desk.

Business consultants, it seems to me, have an unfortunate habit of manufacturing new lingo, new frameworks and new tools that, upon close examination, are often either retreads of existing things or, if they contain some new nuggets, are spun into over-inflated products and services. These habits, or skills one might say, make sense from a commercial point-of-view. After all, who is going to pay good money unless it isn’t something sufficiently new and sexy in order to get people’s attention in these attention-span deficient times?

Business people, however, are also prone to consume these shiny new things. TED videos are shared, business books skimmed (few business books are actually read cover to cover), and cool business Tweats are re-Tweated. If you’re a boss, you might propagate new buzzwords within your organization, department or team. These things run their course until the next flavor of the month comes along.

That is why I thought The Economist’s editorial on the need for management gurus to undergo reformation is a timely message.

The similarities between medieval Christianity and the world of management theory may not be obvious, but seek and ye shall find. Management theorists sanctify capitalism in much the same way that clergymen of yore sanctified feudalism. Business schools are the cathedrals of capitalism. Consultants are its travelling friars. Just as the clergy in the Middle Ages spoke in Latin to give their words an air of authority, management theorists speak in mumbo-jumbo. The medieval clergy’s sale of indulgences, by which believers could effectively buy forgiveness of their sins, is echoed by management theorists selling fads that will solve all your business problems. Lately, another similarity has emerged. The gurus have lost touch with the world they seek to rule. Management theory is ripe for a Reformation of its own.

The newspaper makes the case that four of the major pillars of current management orthodoxy are more like pillars of salt:

  1. The notion that today is a time of hyper-competition where incumbents are under constant threat of disruption. Instead, they argue that today consolidation and oligopolies are on the ascendency, reducing competition.
  2. The idea that today is an era of entrepreneurialism. The Economist’s view is that while the internet has enabled the creation of small businesses, the overall environment (taxation, regulations etc.) have reduced the rate of new business formation and that many individual efforts do not generate returns sufficient to provide financial security.
  3. That business is getting faster. Their argument is that while certain transactions are faster due to the internet, it is not clear that organizations themselves have become more efficient since the need and ability of functions to weigh into every decision has off-set any advantage new technology provides. Another drag on productivity could be the way new technologies, especially social media, are serving to further fragment our attention, making each of us individually, and the organization collectively, far less effective.
  4. Finally, globalisation is both inevitable and irreversible. They point out previous eras of globalization that were stopped by nationalistic forces such as the period of globalization from 1880 to 1914 that ended with several decades of dictatorships and isolationism.

Perhaps most interesting, and certainly an observation I share, is that increasingly the biggest weakness of modern management thinking is “its naivety about politics”. It is not only a naivety about politics, but many ways its inability to understand the irrationality that drives many, if not most, human actions. Technocracy — as symbolized by new apps, robotics, and the Silicon Valley ethos — is selling a dream of a shiny, rational, efficient Utopia, where every human need is met by your smartphone or by Kickstarter. These are useful tools, but one wonders if tools alone make for a healthy and beneficial society. It’s worth reading the editorial, considering the points and forming one’s own perspective.

Point #2: Read non-business stuff (to help in your business-related work).

Funnily, one of the best sections of The Economist is the Books and Arts section at the back. Many a time the best ideas have come from this section and not from the business parts of this newspaper. Here are some of my suggestions:

Magazines and journals:

Podcasts:

  • There are so many podcasts out there that you need a podcast on podcasts. Fortunately, there is such a thing, the CBC’s Podcast Playlist.
  • The Memory Palace. Beautifully crafted stories about events large and small from the past. This one is for those who want as much inspiration and they do information.
  • Monocle Magazine podcasts. The magazine itself is very good, but the podcasts are another way to get all kinds of ideas and perspectives from the worlds of art, food, design, politics and business.

Books:

I’m not sure if there are many people left who read books (as opposed to buying them and sitting them on shelves). One suggestion on how to find 30 minutes a day to read is to put the phone in a drawer for 30 minutes. Over the course of a year that will set aside 10,950 minutes for reading (or 182.5 hours or over 7 and a half days!). Here a few ideas. Given how many potential books there are to recommend, I’ve filtered them by selecting ones that are non-business but that, in a roundabout way, might help generate ideas or perspectives for your work world.

  • The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. I’ve praised this book before, but it’s worth doing so again. A great reminder that innovation and enormous social change is not something new.
  • Mediations by Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of the Roman Empire. Why suggest this book? Here’s the publisher’s description, with which I fully agree:
    • Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (a.d. 121–180) succeeded his adoptive father as emperor of Rome in a.d. 161—and Meditations remains one of the greatest works of spiritual and ethical reflection ever written. With a profound understanding of human behavior, Marcus provides insights, wisdom, and practical guidance on everything from living in the world to coping with adversity to interacting with others. Consequently, the Meditations have become required reading for statesmen and philosophers alike, while generations of ordinary readers have responded to the straightforward intimacy of his style. In Gregory Hays’s new translation—the first in a generation—Marcus’s thoughts speak with a new immediacy: never before have they been so directly and powerfully presented.
  • If cracking open Mediations seems a bit daunting to you, then there is a surprisingly good entry-level book to the philosophy of Stoicism called the Daily Stoic. Surprising because I expected a eye-rollingly superficial book but was pleasantly surprised by how well it conveyed the core ideas of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca. They also have a website.
  • Stoicism is but one important area of philosophy, and so if you want to arm yourself with a pretty full array of philosophical tools, then I recommend the Cave and the Light. I blogged about the book earlier and it’s hard to think of any situation one might encounter in business, politics, personal development or leadership that the ideas summarized in this book wouldn’t provide at least one or more powerful perspectives.

Point #3: Put away your phone at least once each day.

Not much to add here, except to give it a try.



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