Common nonsense: Commoditised best practice and why we’re getting ‘the basics’ of busi ness wrong

Published 8th October 2013/BRW

Common nonsense: Commoditised best practice and why we’re getting ‘the basics’ of business wrong

Dr Jules Goddard says many of the practices of “managerialism” date back to 19th-century efforts to get farm workers producing in factories.

How many times have you heard a leader – of a business or a sporting team – talk about doing “the basics” right.

But what if the way we define “the basics” is all wrong?

That’s the question raised by Dr Jules Goddard, a fellow of London Business School who recently visited the Australian Graduate School of Management as its Unilever Distinguished Scholar.


Goddard is the co-author of a book calledUncommon Sense, Common Nonsense, which questions whether some of the tenets of Business 101 – such as cost-efficiency, operational excellence and competitive benchmarking – promote a sort of herd thinking that does not make for great leaders or great businesses.

He provides the example of the idea of “best practice” which can be heard in boardrooms of all shapes and sizes.

As he points out, the idea itself is a little silly. “Every firm in an industry defines best practice in an industry in the same way. But markets do not reward commodities.”

“Thoughting” v thinking

He says the experts in management thinking – who are often found in business schools – must shoulder a bit of blame for turning management into a “fashion” business, where a new fad is required every few years. These fads tend to feed on each other until a sort of group-think takes hold.

“Anybody who is anybody believes if they are not doing that thing everyone else is doing, they are falling behind.”

It underlines a difference, Goddard argues, between “thoughting” and “thinking”, the latter involving the actual hard work of coming up with new ideas.

He says the result of too much “thoughting” is paralysis by indecisiveness.

“I think we’ve produced a mythology that mistakes that can bring companies down – I like to say we dream vaguely but we dread precisely. But the real mistake is not to make mistakes.”

Growing indecisiveness

Goddard concedes that an increase in indecisiveness is related to the shock of the GFC and the patchy economic conditions that have followed, where leaders have become fearful of company-breaking mistakes.

This period has also seen a rise in the number of policy and regulations that companies put in place to protect themselves from the possibility of mistakes and the use of targets and incentives to keep staff in line.

“Everyone leaves their job in a slightly more complex state than they found it,” Goddard says.

But this complexity, and desire to keep people in line, is old-school thinking, dating back, Goddard argues, to the early days of “managerialism” at the start of the 19th century, when leaders needed a formula to help them transition millions of unskilled farm workers into factories.

Today, with Gen Y and now Gen Z coming through, sticking with a century-old system of management is dangerous.

“I don’t think they’ll put up with it. We have to either change employment or change the way we manage.”

Try a small team

If you’re struggling with the idea of bucking business basics, Goddard suggests setting up a small team that can challenge ideas and beliefs within your organisation. This will help minimise any perceived risks and help “prove that where you are riskiest, you are at your best”.

If that works, a wider culture of challenge can emerge.

“Once you recognise that policy and practices that we take for granted could be flawed, it does change the way you look at things,” Goddard says.


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