Book Review: The Management Myth

The Management Myth: Why the "Experts" Keep Getting it Wrong
by Matthew Stewart

ISBN-10: 0393065537
ISBN-13: 978-0393065534

PROS: Witty, intelligent, and well-written.  Has an excellent sense of history and cause-effect.  Personal anecdotes mixed in with historical reference help illustrate points.

CONS: At times difficult to read for anyone not acquainted with business and management processes.

SUMMARY: A must-read book for those of you in management, dealing with management, and interested in business theory.

The Management Myth is about a man with a philosophy degree who was hired as a management consultant by a company engaged in "experimental hiring" and his experiences.  If this sounds odd, you missed the 80's and a chunk of the 90's.

Stewart's story is interesting, both in what he finds out about management philosophy and business schools, and in his own experiences.  By his own admission, he saw this as a position to earn a lot of money so he could pursue his work in philosophy.  After far more years than expected, and damage to his ethics and health, he has a lot more to write on than he probably bargained for.

Stewart's book is the story of how management theories and business theories popular in a lot of the world, and America especially, are not just wrong, but often founded on lies or misapplied research, and are ethically damaging.  To put it succinctly, he feels most business/management theories are absolute BS that are bad for people.

He illustrates this three ways.  First he looks at his own experiences.  Secondly, he analyzes the history of management theory.  Third, he brings a philosopher's eye to bear on the whole mess.  These three elements fuse together to produce what is basically an indictment of bad academics and bad concepts.

Thus we start with his adventures as a management consultant, with money flying about, desperate businesses, and of course plenty of theories and economic models.  Stewart then illustrates how the very processes and theories he worked with were in error, and many of the historical figures and researchers were at best in error, and at worst people bordering on a kind of cult leader.  His personal experiences illustrate and reflect the larger issues in business practice and management theory.

This is done with wit, and perhaps an edge of bitterness, but also with extensive history and footnotes.  If you have any kind of business experience, you'll recognize a few names and events, and probably be a bit shocked by some revelations (I was a few times).

He finishes his demolishing of sacred idols by going after business guru culture, which he frankly and openly compares to religion – even illustrating parallels.  He notes that business guru culture has been around for decades – and it doesn't seem to have done anyone any good.

Stewart's ultimate point is that a lot of management theory did not bring economic paradise and productivity, but at best solved nothing and at worst created problems (as we may witness at the time of this writing).  He notes many business issues are not ones of some kind of systems or theories, but of ethics and more human issues.

The book is excellent if you're a manager or are involved in any kind of long-term career.  It will make you rethink some assumptions, and in some cases may make you much better at your job.

The flaw in the book is that unless you've got a business degree, work as a manager, or have  had along-term career (say five plus years as a professional), some of it will be irrelevant, and some of it will be plain confusing.  This is NOT a book for everyone, its for people into the philosophy and practices of business.

With that reservation, I'm going to put this in the must-read category – IF you're the person that fits the above requirements.  It'll help demolish some assumptions and make you rethink things – and get new ideas.

Geek-career wise it's also a must read, because it'll help you come to grasp with the issue of how some wonderfully geeky people (scientists, mathematical modelers, etc.) can produce some theories that just don't work.  It also shows how geek-unfriendly ideas can propagate and stay in business – all those times you were sure things could be run better, you may have been right.

– Steven Savage