The art of management theory

A previous boss of mine once gave me, and the rest of her small team, a small book on the theory of management and organisational change which was told in the style of a long fable.  Written by two leading “marketing consultants”, the book was entitled ‘Good Luck’ and purports to be a “whimsical fable that teaches a valuable lesson:  good luck doesn’t just come your way – it’s up to you to create the conditions to bring yourself good luck”.  By choosing a book in the form of a story or fable, my boss wanted to show that she was an imaginative manager, providing a thought-provoking and creative approach to management theory.

I duly read the ‘Fable’ but found it deeply frustrating and uncreative.  Granted, fables can often be deliberately didactic and sombre in tone – but this one was just too simplistic, substituting bland assertions about organisational and personality types in place of the complexities and subtleties of human behaviour.   Rather than being stimulated by the book, I was left with a deep sense of disappointment.  Rather than being thoughtful and inspiring, the book seemed naive and unimaginative**.

My thesis is not that books on management theory cannot be stimulating and thought-provoking.  Nor am I suggesting that the quality of the art is diminished because of an intended artless message (all sorts of examples of powerful political statements come to mind – from Gullivers Travels,  to Picasso’s Guernica).

The point is not that art and management theory don’t mix.  It’s just that sometimes the most powerful understanding of change and its potential comes from the originality of art directly.

I came across this quote from Yann Martel recently which is relevant here: “The originality of fiction addresses the individuality of its reader. How that reader then acts with others—in other words, becomes political—will involve a dilution of that originality, a regard for the conventions and sensibilities of others. And that’s all right. We have to get along with others. But the cost of an artless life is that in being fed no originality, the person’s sense of individuality is eroded. Which is not only sad, but dangerous, since the citizen whose precious individuality is not nourished is more subject to the claims of demagogues and tyrants”.



** As it happens, I gave my boss a book in return – a group of short-stories by DH Lawrence, drawing her attention to ‘You Touched Me’, which tells the story of a woman whose future appears pre-destined by a mistaken ‘touch’ between herself and a male friend.  But which paints a disturbing picture of the chauvinism and sheer poverty of opportunity and choice in an early twentieth century mining community.

One thought on “The art of management theory

  1. When working at the same organisation, I anonymously sent through the internal mail copies of Borges’s short story “The Lottery of Babylon” to members of the management team – with similarly disappointing results (in this case outrage and an internal investigation). Art, fables and parables seem to have become popular tools in modern management, but only to propagate a managerial line and worldview, rarely to challenge it or encourage an individual’s genuine creativity.

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