Management Religion Versus Management Science

In response to my post about the study he and his collaborators did regarding the connection (or lack thereof) between the Net Promoter Score and growth, Tim Keiningham commented that:

Managers adopted NPS with the presumption that it was grounded in solid management science.”

My take: That’s not necessarily true. It should not be a foregone conclusion that managers adopt NPS — or any management approach, for that matter — because they believe it is grounded in management science.

For better or worse, managers often put their faith in a management technique’s promise to deliver results simply because it fits with their view of how the business world works — and for no other reason besides that.

In other words, the management technique becomes their management religion.

The business world sees these religions come and go all the time. Today it’s NPS, in the past it was knowledge management, growth (remember the book “Grow To Be Great”?), and reengineering. What often underlies these theories, methods, and approaches isn’t solid management science but persuasive, engaging, correlative, and anecdotal writings from consultants, management authors, and the growing cadre of consultainers.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with advocating for, or believing in, any particular management religion. But adherents can fail to objectively assess the shortcomings and weaknesses of their chosen religion.

But unlike the real-life religious world, where a certain set of beliefs may guide someone for his or her lifetime, management religions may only be appropriate for a firm for a limited time frame.

Changing management religious views, however, is often difficult for adherents. They’ve made big bets in terms of money and reputation. It often takes disruptive upheavals (not to mention new senior management) to make it happen.

There are lessons here for both sides of the coin: Management scientists shouldn’t expect managers to adopt their recommendations and techniques just because there is sound management science behind their theories. That’s not how managers manage. Interestingly, it’s the scientists who understand better than anyone that our decisions are guided more by emotion than reason.

But on the other hand, the management zealots need to take a less protective view of their [often] new-found religion. Correlation does not mean causation. One size doesn’t fit all (there are probably 20 more adages that apply here). These folks need to take a more tempered view and recognize that organizations differ, strategies differ, conditions differ, etc. and that they’re approach simply isn’t right for everybody.


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