The Management Myth: Management Consulting Past, Present & Largely BogusThe Management Myth: Management Consulting Past, Present & Largely Bogus – Book Review
Reading time: 5 – 8 minutes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A highly entertaining read where Matthew Stewart dismantles the Management Consulting industry. For you with experience in consulting, parts of this are hilarious as Stewart chronicles both the imploding of the consultancy he helped create, and the overall history of the industry.
One by one, he tears apart Fredrick Taylor (the father of “scientific management”), Elton Mayo (of the “famous” Hawthorn Effect), Management Consultants, Strategy (as a science), popular Management Gurus, and offers a harsh critique of MBA’s in general. His main premises is that “Management” is not a profession on the level with Medicine or Law, however management education through business schools have attempted to professionalize it. And to that end, they have manufactured “science” (in a very non-rigorous and untestable sense), truisms, frameworks, and case studies.
Here are a few highlights. I didn’t agree with all that he had to say, but I did enjoy reading it. I was laughing out loud towards the end as he details how his fellow partners are embroiled in litigation with him as he tries to sever all ties. Stewart is genuinely funny, giving characters nicknames such as “The Prince of Darkness”, “The Troll,” “Dr. Bob” the corporate shrink, and others.
As for management consultants, he had less-than-flattering quotes:
“[C]onsultants often serve not to provide new knowledge to their clients but merely to communicate ideas already formed. In many instances, our work amounted to harnessing work performed in one part of an organization and then packaging it all as our own work for the benefit of another part of the same organization.”
I can’t speak for all organizations, but I am extraordinarily fortunate to say at ThoughtWorks (my employer) this has never been my case. We are not a traditional management consulting McKinsey style strategy consulting firm, true. However, we do have consulting projects, some the strategic management consulting types. I’ve seen us bring our outside expertise and influence and avoid acting solely as grease in the wheels. Becoming grease may let others bill lots of money, but isn’t very intellectually fulfilling.
Even better, if you have worked in a traditional pyramid style company, (of which ThoughtWorks is very, very, very, very much not) he has this gem to explain it:
“It’s like being stuck in a dungeon with a bunch of rats and a giant block of cheese. All the rats keep climbing the cheese, two years at level one, two years at level two. The threes shit on the twos and the twos shit on the ones, and everyone shits all the time on the rats at the bottom. All they care about is rat-face-time. As in, please-sir-would-you-stick-your-rodent-butt-closer-to-my-face time. You keep going up until one of the other rats bites your ass off.”
Up or out. Several friends of mine elsewhere have shared this is a fairly accurate description.
Strategy. He also tears apart Porter and his Five Forces . Stewart claims all business strategists describe strategy in hindsight (not so useful if you want to implement “strategy” for, you know… the future). I have a little bit of a hard time accepting that all of modern strategy is hogwash, as instead I think while bounded in utility, different frameworks help one to position a problem and look for solutions in diverse ways.
Due to business schools’ roots in Taylor, Mayo and others that he sequentially defuses of all credibility, the author also suggests that the fundamental underpinning of MBA’s are shaky. The academic and scientific rigor is weak, and the content is easily grasped by otherwise intelligent people.
“After 100 years of fruitless attempts to produce such a discipline, it should be clear that [Business Management] does not exist. preparing managers to manage, in fact, is not different from preparing people to live in a civilized world. Managers to not need to be trained; they need to be educated. And for that purpose, although a certain amount of study of business-related subjects may prove useful, the business schools as they are presently constituted are at best superfluous.”
A jaded view? Yes. But also very fun. The best parts is the parallel narrative that progresses through the book about his firm. I don’t want to spoil much, but it is especially fun when his firm’s acquiring company’s CEO steps down because he wishes to promote full time his beliefs in UFO’s and alien-human technology transfer. Serious.  This guy had a crazy consulting journey, and has a great style of writing about it.
If you are interested in this book, first read his article on The Atlantic , which gives you a taste of the content here. Second, check out the WSJ book review , by Philip Broughton, author of a similar book that I recently reviewed. Also check out the New Yorker’s review .
 Michael Porter, of Harvard. Father of the 5 Forces, which are: (1) the bargaining power of suppliers, (2) the bargaining power of buyers, (3) the rivalry among existing firms, (4) the threat of new entrants, and (5) the threat of substitute products. Extremely influential, he also advocated all strategy aims for a single, measurable goal: excess profits. (Unsurprisingly, Stewart takes criticism of this).
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