The immutable laws of management

By on October 30, 2014

The ‘management physics’ analogy has really caught on. But does it make any sense?

There’s an old academics’ joke that goes: why are economists jealous of physicists? Because the physicists have three laws to explain 99% of phenomena, while the economists have 99 laws to explain 3% of phenomena.

Management is much more like economics than physics, being to do with the behaviour of people, not things. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop management theorists or practitioners succumbing to physics envy. One of Jim Collins’s bestselling books actually claims to reveal the ‘immutable laws of management physics’. In other words, follow these rules and you will be successful, just as the earth will continue to orbit the sun. Seductive, but highly dangerous.

Management isn’t physics, for many reasons. One is that success in management is relative, not absolute. Consider, for instance, another management concept, Blue Ocean Strategy. This is a good idea, provided you are the only one who has it. But once everyone has got hold of it, it becomes self-defeating. As soon as the smallest patch of ‘blue ocean’ appears, it becomes the most hotly contested area of the whole market.

The physics analogy also breaks down because we are dealing with people, not objects. I can use physics to accurately predict the motion of billiard balls on a table. But I don’t have to deal with those billiard balls having a point of view about which end of the table is most fashionable, or wondering whether they want to be pushed around on a table at all.

Collins’s ‘management physics’ has been debunked in Phil Rosenzweig’s excellent The Halo Effect. Yet Collins’s Good to Great ranks 1,092 on Amazon, while The Halo Effect trails below 250 000.

You could see this as an affront to reason, but there’s a more pragmatic response. In a world where so many are pursuing illusions, what could you achieve if you had the intelligence to see things as they are?

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