What Were They Thinking?: A book review by Bob Morris

What Were They Thinking?: Unconventional Wisdom About Management
Jeffrey Pfeffer
Harvard Business Press (2007)

According to Jeffrey Pfeffer, there seem to be three themes that unify many of the ideas he shares in this volume: “(1) the importance of considering feedback effects – the ideas that actions often have unintended consequences; (2) the naïve, overly simplistic, almost mechanical models of people and organizations that seem to dominant both discourse and practice; and (3) the tendency to overcomplicate what are often reasonably straightforward choices and insights.” Pfeffer provides an abundance of examples of these and other especially common errors of comprehension and, worse yet, errors of judgment.

“The message…is that we ought to think before we act, taking into full account feedback effects and using the insights of not only the large body of evidence on behavior but our own common sense and observations. It turns out both common sense and careful thought are in short supply. But that means there are great opportunities for those people and organizations willing to spend the effort to get beyond conventional management wisdom.”

In one of his previous books (Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense), Pfeffer and his co-author, Robert I. Sutton, examine what they call “the doing-knowing gap”: doing without knowing, or at least without knowing enough. “People kept telling us about the wonderful things they were doing to implement knowledge – but those things clashed with, and at times were the opposite of, what we knew about organizations and people. Upon probing, we soon discovered that many managers had been prompted by a seminar, book, or consultants to do things that were at odds with the best evidence about what works.” Pfeffer and Sutton identify some of the barriers to what they call “evidence-based management” and recommend specific steps that leaders can take to overcome those barriers.

For years, Pfeffer has challenged conventional management wisdom that is not supported by sufficient evidence. Consider this composite quotation from Chapter 25, “Don’t Believe the Hype About Strategy,” as Pfeffer explains what is wrong with strategy as it has come to be known and defined:

“First of all, there is often much too much emphasis on the quality of the presentation and the pitch rather than the quality and business acumen of the ideas…Second, there is often a lot of emphasis on talk – on sounding smart – in the strategy formulation process and a lot of time sitting around thinking and planning instead of going out and trying some stuff, seeing what works, and learning by doing…[Despite] all the emphasis on strategy at the board and senior executive level, there is precious little evidence that it really is a source of success. The research on the effects of strategic planning generally finds it has no effect on corporate performance…[In fact] most successful strategies are simple…What is extremely difficult to copy – and what therefore does provide competitive advantage – is the way a company implements and executes its strategy…The other problem with today’s overemphasis on strategy is the tendency to build in various forms of rigidity. Strategy, after all, is designed to tell a company not only what to do but what not to do – what customers and products and industry segments to avoid, either because they don’t play to the company’s strengths or aren’t economically attractive. Or some combination of the two.”

This composite quotation is representative of the thrust and flavor of Pfeffer’s analytical and writing skills throughout the entire book as he offers unconventional management wisdom on a full-range of subjects. In addition to his thoughts about what’s wrong with strategy, I also appreciated his contrarian opinions about building customer relationships, training expenditures, “taking chances and making mistakes,” working long hours, interview objectives and hiring practices, “persistence,” compensation incentives and rewards, and organized labor (i.e. unions). Ultimately, Pfeffer insists, decision-makers must follow a remarkably simple process that dates back at least to Aristotle.

I agree with Pfeffer on the importance of considering feedback effects because actions often have unintended consequences. I also share his disdain for “the naïve, overly simplistic, almost mechanical models of people and organizations that seem to dominant both discourse and practice.” As for overcomplicating what are often reasonably straightforward choices and insights, Albert Einstein offers the best advice: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”




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