Peter F. Drucker on Management Essentials: A book review by Bob Morris

Peter F. Drucker on Management Essentials,
Peter F. Drucker,
Harvard Business Review Press,

“So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work”,

Drucker’s widely quoted comment helps to explain why so many organizations — whatever their size and nature may be — struggle to avoid making the mistake to which Drucker refers in another widely quoted comment: “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” Taking out a fire ant hill with a cruise missile may be effective but it is certainly not efficient.

The material in this book clearly indicates why Drucker believed that “managers and management are the specific need of any business, its specific organ, and its basic structure. We can say positively that enterprise cannot do without managers.” Moreover, “management is [or at least should be] independent of ownership, rank, or power…It is professional — management is a function, a discipline, a task to be done; and managers are the professionals who practice this discipline, carry out the functions, and discharge these tasks.”

What are the essentials of management? These are among Drucker’s key considerations in Part I, Chapters 1-5:

o Seven major themes that will continue to be the primary focus of management, viewed as “different pieces in the same tool box, every one of which is needed to do the job”

o Three management tasks, “equally important but essentially different, which management has to perform to enable the institution to function and to contribute”

o Viewing management as an economic organ, “the specifically economic organ of the industrial society”
Note: “Every act, every decision, every deliberation of management, has economic performance as its first dimension.”

o Also, making work productive: effective but also efficient

o And the work, jobs, and organization of management determined and shaped by the tasks to be performed
Note: “Structure follows strategy.”

In Parts II-V (Chapters 6-22), Drucker responds to questions that include

“What is a manager?”
“What is a business?”
“What are the key business realities?”
“How to organize and manage work for peak performance?”
“How can managers use the strengths of people?”

Then in the concluding Part (Chapters 23-26), Drucker shares his thoughts about management and the quality of life, social impacts and social problems, the limits of social responsibility, and the ethics of responsibility.

For me, the greatest value of the material in this book is derived from its practicality, its emphasis on doing what is right the right way. For example, do not waste your time and energy (or anyone else’s) on answering the wrong question, solving the wrong problem, etc. When communicating with others, be alert for what isn’t said, and during face-to-face conversations pay special attention to body language and tone of voice.

Others have much of value to say about management and, in my opinion, their observations suggest the possibility of Drucker’s influence. Consider these five:

“Executives spent too much time on what is urgent, not enough time on what is important.” Stephen Covey”

People don’t want quarter-inch drills. They want quarter-inch holes.” Theodore Levitt

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou

“There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.” Sam Walton

“The early bird may get the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese.” Steven Wright

It is important to keep in mind that the material in this book was first published by Harvard Business Review from 1952 until 1976. He selected the material for this volume in 1977, resisting the “temptation to rewrite.” Some of it is dated, and much of it may not be directly relevant to each reader’s own circumstances in 2021. I agree with the HBR editors, however, that “one of the many delights of these essays for current readers…is in judging how remarkably prescient and applicable so much of his thinking remains today.”

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