I read a great article the other day by Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University that claimed "90% of Management Advice is Crap". I wholly applaud the article and it's thinking. (Check it out here)
Now as someone who writes a column on management and does one of the world's most popular podcasts on the topic, (which is a little like being the world's greatest authority on Zeppo Marx - a dubious honor at best) you'd think I would find this disturbing. Quite the contrary.
Theologians and philosophers consider it a sign of intelligence and even genius to simultaneously understand and deal with two apparently opposing thoughts and still be able to function. Not that I'm a genius or nothin', but here it goes:
Sutton's article states that most of what passes for business advice is warmed-over common sense and not new at all. I agree. What I don't agree with is the notion that this means the advice is useless.
I can remember the exact moment my thinking cleared up on the subject. I was interviewing Rosa Say, the charming author of "Managing With Aloha" for my Cranky Middle Manager Show. She was talking about treating your people with respect- actually common, sound thinking on the subject of people management- by using terms from the Hawaiian language and culture.
While I'm a big fan of multiple vowels, palm trees, grass skirts and everything else Polynesian, the advice itself was nothing particularly new. What was new was the terminology used- it slowed me down long enough to actually think about what she was saying.
That was exactly the point. We hear the same things said so often that they become white noise- we pay no attention to it anymore. It's only when something is said in a way we've never heard it put before that it cuts through the blah-blah-blah.
Sutton uses an example of an article from a 2004 Harvard Business Review article on breakthrough ideas- "Don't Hire Jerks"- and sniffs that his father taught him the same thing when he was nine. I'd have to ask if he has ever hired a jerk.
If I had to list every thing my father ever told me that I ignored til I heard it from a more reliable source I'd be here til doomsday - or Canada wins the World Cup, whichever comes first.
Stephen Covey has made millions off "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People". Other than actually collating them, I defy anyone reading this to point out one truly new idea in those pages. What made it unique was the message told just that way. "Sharpen The Saw" is just another way of saying "Don't get cocky," which both my old man and Han Solo said to me back in the '70s. I wasn't ready for that message then. I was too busy being cocky.
There are about 3,000 new business titles published in the U.S. alone each year and most of them are useless - not because they're not right, but because we either already know and are doing those things, or the message falls on deaf ears and that's what makes them useless. Information not acted upon is just noise.
Michele de Montaigne once said, "… the firmest and most general ideas I have are those which have been born with me. They are naturally and wholly mine…since then I have established and fortified them by the authority of others and the sound arguments of the ancients with whom I found my judgment in agreement. These men have given me a firmer grip on my ideas and a fuller enjoyment and possession of them"
That was 1554, and they were out of ideas even then. So yeah, there isn't a whole lot new in the field of management advice. If there were we wouldn't listen to it anyway- because most of us in management know what we're supposed to do, we're just too busy dealing with the day to day to stop and think about how well we're doing it.
When we read something that resonates and makes us conscious of how we approach our jobs and treat our people it's worth reading. Mr Sutton should know that - he's written at least three management books and I doubt he thinks at least two of THEM are... well, you know.