The Management Myth: Why the “Experts” Keep Getting it Wrong
By Matthew Stewart
W. W. Norton & Company, 2009
Matthew Stewart chose to write The Management Myth as two parallel narratives that he presents in alternating chapters. This is a great literary device in masterful hands. While Stewart is no slouch in the authoring department he wrote a well-received intellectual history, The Courtier and the Heretic his choice to alternate chapters is atypical for a business book, and the stories suffer from a common problem with this device: One narrative is much more interesting than the other.
The first story, the better of the two, recounts the author’s personal experience at an unnamed management consultancy (but most likely the Mitchell Madison Group). Stewart pokes fun at the recruitment process, questions the usefulness of the MBA qualification (the author and many staff members at the agency hold non-business degrees), and of consulting as a whole. He chronicles the firm’s descent into infighting and conflict conflict that presaged its acquisition and later demise.
The second narrative details the history of management “science” research, as Stewart calls it, and which he considers to be largely “myth,” as evidenced in the book’s title. He chronicles the foibles, exaggerations, and outright frauds of many early pioneers. There are revealing sections on Frederick Winslow Taylor, who may have fabricated key parts of his research, and on Elton Mayo, who discovered the famous “Hawthorne Effect” that Stewart contends was largely a side effect of a new compensation scheme. The Management Myth also moves through time to have sport with the gurus of today. Tom Peters and Gary Hamel are compared to preachers, among other predictable barbs.
Based on Stewart’s observations, he does not believe that management is a science or a profession. The latter judgment is based on management’s lack of review boards, such as those in the medical profession, that expel miscreants. This logic will cause raised eyebrows among professionals in acting, design, and other occupations, which are increasingly viewed as professions but also lack such sanctions.
In the second narrative, Stewart’s findings are no more than mildly diverting, and I was continually tempted to skip ahead to the increasingly bitter struggles at the consultancy. While Stewart’s history lesson is amusing, his advice for business schools is frequently laughable, especially his suggestion that schools issue fewer MBAs in favor of producing more business PhDs.
Although the account of Stewart’s consulting life can hold readers’ attention, he cannot compete with the beautiful writing in Mohsin Hamed’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which includes a fictionalized account of a fish out of water in a valuation consultancy and tackles other weighty themes. Moreover, Hamed’s book is about half the length of Stewart’s. Perhaps Stewart is making the ultimate postmodern statement about business books: He proves how bad they all are by writing a bad one himself.