Message Not Received: Why Business Communication is Broken and How to Fix It

March 30, 2015


Is management a true science? It’s a contentious issue with enormous stakes. Phil Simon, author of Message Not Received, answers.

Why Jargon Has Prevailed: Consultants, MBAs, and the Management "Scientists"

By trade, Frederick Winslow Taylor was an American mechanical engineer, but he's not renowned for that. Long before the Bobs in Office Space, Taylor was arguably the world's first efficiency expert. In the late nineteenth century, he spent a great deal of time watching factory workers performing manual tasks. Taylor wasn't bored, nor was he a voyeur. He was working, recording everything he saw with his stopwatch. He was on a quest to find the one best way to do each job. That information would further his ultimate goal: to improve—in fact, to maximize—economic efficiency, especially labor productivity. This became the basis for his theory of scientific management.

Taylor passed away in 1915, but his significance in the business world has persevered. For example, in The Management Myth: Debunking Modern Business Philosophy, Matthew Stewart describes Taylor's posthumous impact:

The management idol continues to exert its most direct effect on business education. Although Taylor and his doctrine fell from favor at the business schools as his name became associated with public controversy, his fundamental idea that business management is an applied science remained cemented in the foundations of business school. In 1959, for example, the highly influential Gordon and Howell report on the state of business education called for a reinvigoration of the scientific foundations of business educations.

Over the years, many critics have attacked Taylor's theory. Today you're unlikely to meet one of his acolytes, but Taylor remains an influential if controversial figure a century after his death. Perhaps Taylorism's crowning achievement was that it represented the earliest known attempt to apply science to the field of management. Even now this is an open debate: Is management a true science?

It's a contentious issue with enormous stakes. Corporations pay handsomely for elite management consulting firms such as Bain Capital, McKinsey, Accenture, and the Boston Consulting Group. Ditto for gurus such as Tom Peters, Jim Collins, and Guy Kawasaki. For his part, Collins can command as much as $100,000 for a daylong seminar, not including first-class accommodations. Even junior McKinsey consultants bill upward of $300 per hour.

CEOs pay these exorbitant sums for two reasons. First, hiring a prominent consultancy or guru is widely viewed as safe. Many CEOs continue to abide by the maxim "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM." Second, experts promise to fix what ails their clients. For this type of coin, management experts are supposed to provide organizations with valuable advice that is guaranteed to work. Can you imagine a team of very pricey consultants concluding a six-month assignment with the words "We're pretty sure that [our recommendations] might work?"

Except they often don't, and here's where the "management is a science" argument crumbles. If management really were a true science, then it stands to reason that it would always follow immutable laws. For instance, consider chemistry. Water always freezes at 0C and boils at 100C at 1 atmosphere. Period. There are never any exceptions.

Where is the management analog?

Keep thinking.

Give up?

It doesn't exist.

Put differently, management is doubtless a critical discipline, but referring to it as a science is erroneous. Think of it more as a philosophy or, at best, a social science—and there's nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, a great deal of modern management theory and its practitioners continue to suffer from a scientific inferiority complex. In Stewart's words:

As with Taylor's purported general science of efficiency, most efforts to concoct a general science of organizations fail not because the universal principles they put forward are wrong— they are usually right—but because they don't belong to an applied science. They properly belong to a philosophy.

Many other books touch on the central theme that even expert predictions are nothing more than coin flips:
  • The Halo Effect: . . . and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers by Phil Rosenzweig
  • The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
  • Everything Is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us by Duncan J. Watts
  • The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Forget trying to predict, manipulate, and manage social and economic systems. Attempting to do this on even an individual level is bound to go awry. For myriad reasons, the same strategy that worked for Company A at one point may fail abysmally when Company B implements it. Diversifying offerings can save one company and ravage another, even if they are in the same industry.

These types of vicissitudes are not very scientific. Even if a team of the world's best management consultants told you that your company ought to "stick to its knitting," adhering to that advice guarantees zilch. This is even truer now than it was 20 years ago. Against this backdrop of rampant technological change, far too many external factors are at play to ensure anything remotely resembling certainty. A trite bromide and 10-point plan will not by themselves yield the desired results. Business is not a laboratory; one cannot hold all other factors constant to pinpoint cause and effect.

This brings us to the liberal use of buzzwords by gurus, management consultants, and MBAs. I challenge you to think of three groups of people who have wrought more jargon on the business community. Scientists create and use sophisticated terms to explain new and complex phenomena. It logically follows, then, that management types will do this as well. In an effort to appear smart and scientific, they have coined phrases like thinking outside the box, paradigm shift, optics, and scores more. They have perverted more than their fair share of simple words as well.

Many buzzwords or pithy axioms from management consultants can be explained just as well—in fact, usually better—in simple English. From the consultants' perspective, though, simplicity and clarity pose a significant problem: It makes them appear less smart, less scientific. Maybe they wouldn't be able to charge as much if their advice seemed so obvious.

Message Not Received available for purchase.  
Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It by Phil Simon. Copyright (c) 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.


Phil Simon is a recognized technology authority. He is the award-winning author of seven management books, most recently Message Not Received. He consults organizations on matters related to communications, strategy, data, and technology. His contributions have been featured on The Harvard Business Review, CNN, Wired, NBC, CNBC, Inc. Magazine, BusinessWeek, Quartz, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, Fox News, and many other sites.

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