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Management/Success/Leadership: Mostly Bullshit - Dilbert Blog

Management/Success/Leadership: Mostly Bullshit

Sometimes I think the field of management/success/leadership is nothing more than a confusion of correlation for causation. For example, I blogged recently that “passion” isn’t so much a cause of success as a result of success, and it grows as the success grows. Success can make anyone passionate about what they are doing. When the experts say we need passion to be successful, that’s mostly bullshit. What you need is energy, talent, hard work, a reasonable plan, and lots of luck.

Company culture is another area that I think the experts get backwards. The common belief is that you need a good company culture to create success. But isn’t it more likely that companies with awesome employees get both a good culture and success at the same time? A good corporate culture is a byproduct of doing everything right; it’s not the cause of success as much as the outcome. Success improves culture more than a good culture can cause success.

And how about that charisma thing? That’s important, right? Everyone says so. Look at Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, and Larry Ellison. Those guys have plenty of charisma so it must be important to success, we assume. But let me tell you what causes charisma: success.

I’m in a unique position to judge the success=charisma hypothesis because I slip in and out of famousness all day long. Cartoonists aren’t normally recognized, and when I walk into a room as a “normal” I exhibit no charisma whatsoever. I might even be absorbing some charisma that is already in the atmosphere. But when I enter a room at an event where people are expecting me in my capacity as a semi-famous cartoonist, suddenly I appear to have some charisma. I feel like Moses in a room full of water. Trust me when I say that if Steve Jobs had not been successful so young, he’d be known as the lying asshole who needs a shower, not the guy with the reality distortion field. Charisma is bullshit.

Today I was reading an expert’s opinion that companies get better results when managers learn to avoid micromanaging employees. But how do we know those non-micromanaging managers get better results? Wouldn’t it also be true that wherever you have the most highly capable employees – the ones most likely to create success – you have a boss who knows he can back off the micromanaging? One would expect more micromanaging in companies with untalented employees. So how do you know what causes what?

Consider the thousands of different books on management/success/leadership. If any of this were real science, all managers would learn the same half-dozen secrets to success and go on to great things. The reality of the business world is more like infinite monkeys with typewriters. Sooner or later a monkey with an ass pimple will type something that makes sense and every management expert in the world will attribute the success to the ass pimple.

How about the idea that every hourly wage slave should “act like an entrepreneur”?  How do you think that would play out with Apple’s 50,000 employees? The unsexy reality is that everyone in the company can’t be creative risk-takers. Someone has to actually work. My guess is that Apple would fall apart if more than 5% of its employees acted like entrepreneurs. And maybe the tipping point is only 2%. Entrepreneurs are disruptive, rule-breaking risk-takers. A little bit of that goes a long way.

I first noticed the questionable claims of management experts back in the nineties, when it was fashionable to explain a company’s success by its generous employee benefits. The quaint idea of the time was that treating employees like kings and queens would free their creative energies to create massive profits. The boring reality is that companies that are successful have the resources to be generous to employees and so they do. The best way a CEO can justify an obscene pay package is by treating employees generously. To put this in another way, have you ever seen a corporate turnaround that was caused primarily by improving employee benefits?

The fields of management/success/leadership are a lot like the finance industry in the sense that much of it is based on confusing correlation and chance with causation. We humans like to feel as if we understand and control our environments. We don’t like to think of ourselves as helpless leaves blowing in the wind of chance. So we clutch at any ridiculous explanation of how things work.

My view is that success happens when you have a coincidence of talent, resources, and timing. One can explain the existence of successful serial entrepreneurs by the fact that once successful they gain resources, credibility, extra talent, contacts, and the opportunity to live someplace such as Silicon Valley where opportunities fall out of trees.  You would expect that group of people to get lucky more often than someone just starting out.

Dilbert came to fame in the nineties when the working world was experiencing an unprecedented “bubble” of management bullshit. Every time a new business book became a best seller, middle managers across the globe scurried to buy a copy and started spewing its jargon. Eventually the sale of business books dropped off when, I assume, people realized there couldn’t really be 10,000 different sure-fire formulas for success.

But lately I’ve been feeling another bullshit bubble forming in the world. And I don’t mean only the financial markets, which are sketchy for lots of reasons. It’s just a feeling, but it seems to me that the management/success/leadership bullshit bubble is once again reaching full inflation.

Are you feeling the bubble too, or is it just me?