Books: Home truths for the office

An octogenarian soothsayer lays down 81 laws for managers who aren't afraid of self-examination. Charles Handy soaks up the wit and wisdom of Russell Ackoff.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

This book is fun - not something one can often say about a management book. It's also a compact piece of distilled wisdom. That's because it has its origins in the fertile mind of Russ Ackoff. He has been studying, advising and working with organisations of all sorts for more than 60 years and is world-renowned for his work on systems thinking - the idea that the whole is more than the parts and that any changes to one part of the system will have repercussions on others. Obvious stuff, perhaps, but incredibly important.

It's the same with this little book. Many of the 81 f-Laws are obvious when you think about them, but are too often ignored or neglected. Yet they matter. Take No. 4, for instance: 'There is no point in asking customers, who do not know what they want, to say what they want.'

Focus groups or their equivalents can only provide reactions to existing products or policies. They are no substitute for true innovation. We know this but we still use consumer groups and surveys to boost our failing imagination.

More serious still is No. 51: 'Managers who don't know how to measure what they want, settle for wanting what they can measure.' This little law lies at the heart of the tragedy of the targets that has bedevilled our public services in recent years, but more conventional businesses are not immune. Short-term earnings per share may be easy to measure but are not always the best guide to corporate health. Or - Ackoff at his most cynical - No 67: 'The higher their rank, the less managers perceive a need for continuing education, but the greater their need for it.'

His commentary on this law goes on to suggest that any developmental course that such people do attend is usually in or near a golf course, and addressed by what he terms 'managerial evangelists', who are 'evaluated more by the excitement they induce than the inspiration they provide'.

In No. 47 he casts a quizzical eye on some modern gimmickry: 'Teleconferencing is an electronic way of wasting more time than is saved in travel.' He might be right.

Yes, the f-Laws can be cruel and a touch exaggerated, perhaps the better to make their point, and some are infected by the US business culture. Conscious of this, the publisher invited Sally Bibb, a UK specialist in organisational development, an author in her own right - of The Stone Age Company - as well as a director of group sales development at the Economist Group, to join in the conversation and add her own commentary. It's an inspired notion, but she has an unenviable task because a lot of the bite of the laws lies in their deliberate exaggeration, cynicism and - that rare American trait - irony.

In seeking to spell out how they apply to British organisations, Bibb occasionally finds the need to say 'yes, but... ' to some, or, by elaborating on others, draws their sting. Nevertheless, she does a difficult job well, and her 'buts' deflect any tendency on the part of the reader to dismiss any of them out of hand. She is, in effect, challenging each reader to do their own homework.

Eighty-one f-Laws cannot be assimilated in one sitting. Skim it, if you like, and raise the odd wry smile of rueful recognition. Or undergo a self-examination course. Take each f-Law in turn and ask yourself how it applies to you, to your role in the organisation and to your organisation as a whole. Do it seriously and you might learn a lot.

But the book might be best used as the basis for a serious conversation with colleagues. There is truth at the heart of all the laws, and it will be best dragged out in discussion, perhaps as one f-Law at a time. Every meeting, someone has suggested, could start with a short f-Law meditation - or might that be too American?

For myself, not all the laws were pungent, but many of them created that 'aha!' effect, when we exclaim: 'Of course! I always knew that, just never knew that I knew it.' Others called for some hard honesty. No.18 for example: 'Good teachers produce sceptics who ask their own questions and find their own answers; management gurus produce only unquestioning disciples.' None of us, it seems, is immune from Ackoff's arrows.

Ackoff has seen a lot and been around a long time - he is 88 this month. He has learnt a lot along the way. We should all be grateful that he has chosen to share his profound wisdom, and that of his long-time friend and collaborator, Herbert Addison, in such an enjoyable and compressed way. It's also pleasing when someone writes as he talks and as he lives. Ackoff's friendly, quizzical, ironic self shines through in these pages.

Management f-Laws; Russell L Ackoff and Herbert J Addison, with considered responses by Sally Bibb; Triarchy Press £20.00; To order, visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk

Charles Handy's latest books are his memoir Myself and Other More Important Matters and, with his wife Elizabeth, The New Philanthropists (both Heinemann).

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