As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a strong advocate of evidence-based management. Yes, there are times when sound evidence isn't available, can't be generated fast enough to make a pressing decision, or clashes so much that you need to go with your gut instinct. But there are plenty of times when good evidence is available and ignoring it is management malpractice. This is not only the basis of the book Jeff Pfeffer and I wrote, Hard Facts, it is a theme that runs through all my books. There are certainly times when I express opinions that reflect my values and biases, or offer hunches or gut reactions that aren't grounded in strong evidence-- I try to make clear when that is the case. That is human enough, part of the creative process (see my P.S.), and as I said, sometimes necessary when no good data are available, but a pressing problem exists.
But a huge flaw in the current practice of management is the often open disdain for sound evidence and logic that does or could exist, which is then quickly followed by absurd and extreme claims that are reminiscent of old-fashioned snake oil salespeople.
Imagine if you had a serious illness and your doctor suggested a serious of treatments. She proudly proclaimed that it wasn't based on any theory or evidence, but assured you it would be effective. Sounds like she is a quack, doesn't it? Pretty much the same thing happens all the time in management. As an example, Jeff Pfeffer got a request to write a blurb for a book this week (I will not reveal the name to protect the innocent and the guilty) that begins with this claim:
Don’t buy this book if you have the time and inclination for studying theoretical concepts. You’ll be disappointed in less than an hour.
Do buy this book if you’re in a hurry and want to accelerate your achievements and your goals. You’ll be moving faster in less than an hour.
I was a bit annoyed by the dig at concepts, as to me, that is an irrational rejection of sound logic. But what really bothered me was the second claim because, if you reject theory and evidence, how could you support such a claim?
I don't think there is any evidence that any management book can lead to significant self or organizational improvement after an hour of reading. That is simply an unsupported claim. It is, however, a nearly perfect example of Bullshit, at least as defined in the bestseller of the same name. As author Harry Frankfurt explained:
"It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as the essence of bullshit."
Following Frankfurt's perspective, a book like this one -- and so much other management advice -- fit the definition of bullshit quite well -- people aren't exactly lying, they simply have no interest or respect for the truth. They just want your money.
P.S. If you want to read about a great example of a leader and, now investor, who cares about the truth, check-out this fantastic post by John Lilly, who grew Mozilla from 12 to 600 employees and now is a VC at a very hot firm called Greylock, which just hired a data scientist. At the same time, John emphasizes that much of the creative process necessary for entrepreneurship requires inspiration, whims, and hunches -- sometimes fueled imperfect but rich and emotionally compelling illustrations from ethnography and related methods. John offers the motto, "Design like you are right, read the data like you are wrong." I love that, as it shows the path for linking the messiness and courage required for human creativity with the rigorous reality checks that are hallmarks of evidence-based action. It is also a good example of the attitude of wisdom, which Jeff and I have written about a lot.