Clay Christensen on Peter Drucker

Wonderful, ranging insights from Christensen in this article, from the importance of the ‘diagnosis’ phase of strategy work; the process of theory building; and why numbers are the lingua franca of business. But best is the call-to-arms for a better form of management.

In your most recent article for HBR, The Capitalist’s Dilemma, you make a brief reference to Drucker’s work, and also Ted Levitt’s, and you write that the practice of management has “regressed” since they made their contributions. Do you really believe that?

I do. I do. Where this conviction comes from is from my doing deep dives in the dumpster. I’ve been crawling inside companies and listening to what managers talk about. What is the agenda when they have a management meeting? A shocking proportion of their conversation is spent on topics like “where are we going to get the numbers so that we can deliver the numbers to Wall Street on time?”

My observation of what’s happened is that, today, the people convened for that senior executive meeting all have different languages that they speak. One speaks finance, one speaks HR, one speaks operations, and so on. They have discovered that, if they translate all of their initiatives into numbers, then everyone can talk about them.

So numbers are the lingua franca of the C suite, but that forces everyone into a very limited vocabulary.

Yes – when you put the agenda together, all of the options that people need to decide upon are translated into numbers. And so the evaluation of the ideas quickly turns into a review of how good the numbers look, as opposed to being a substantive discussion about things that are not known. That’s why I think we’ve regressed.

And this brings us back to: Do managers matter? They actually don’t matter unless they are trying to get ahead of themselves and create the insight to frame what is really going on in the world. And to do that, you actually have to interact richly with all of these people and all of these problems, and then develop data to describe accurately what’s going on. If you are not going in and out of the dumpster, you can’t do your job.

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