Management Religion Versus Management Science

In response to my post about the study he and his collaborators did regarding the connection (or lack thereof) between the Net Promoter Score and growth, Tim Keiningham commented that:

Managers adopted NPS with the presumption that it was grounded in solid management science.”

My take: That’s not necessarily true. It should not be a foregone conclusion that managers adopt NPS — or any management approach, for that matter — because they believe it is grounded in management science.

For better or worse, managers often put their faith in a management technique’s promise to deliver results simply because it fits with their view of how the business world works — and for no other reason besides that.

In other words, the management technique becomes their management religion.

The business world sees these religions come and go all the time. Today it’s NPS, in the past it was knowledge management, growth (remember the book “Grow To Be Great”?), and reengineering. What often underlies these theories, methods, and approaches isn’t solid management science but persuasive, engaging, correlative, and anecdotal writings from consultants, management authors, and the growing cadre of consultainers.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with advocating for, or believing in, any particular management religion. But adherents can fail to objectively assess the shortcomings and weaknesses of their chosen religion.

But unlike the real-life religious world, where a certain set of beliefs may guide someone for his or her lifetime, management religions may only be appropriate for a firm for a limited time frame.

Changing management religious views, however, is often difficult for adherents. They’ve made big bets in terms of money and reputation. It often takes disruptive upheavals (not to mention new senior management) to make it happen.

There are lessons here for both sides of the coin: Management scientists shouldn’t expect managers to adopt their recommendations and techniques just because there is sound management science behind their theories. That’s not how managers manage. Interestingly, it’s the scientists who understand better than anyone that our decisions are guided more by emotion than reason.

But on the other hand, the management zealots need to take a less protective view of their [often] new-found religion. Correlation does not mean causation. One size doesn’t fit all (there are probably 20 more adages that apply here). These folks need to take a more tempered view and recognize that organizations differ, strategies differ, conditions differ, etc. and that they’re approach simply isn’t right for everybody.

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5 thoughts on “Management Religion Versus Management Science

  1. I had first come across the concept of Promoters about five years ago, in a white paper from I loved the idea that people can report satisfaction until they’re blue in the face, but can leave your product or service in a heartbeat because talk is cheap — at least when it comes to filling out customer satisfaction surveys.

    On the other hand, if they tell their friends and colleagues about your brand, and actively promote the brand, they are solidifying their loyalty to you. Now they’re committed.

    I like any behavioral measure, I love it. Thoughts follow actions. It’s been interesting to follow this concept through the years, and I’m quite selfishly interested in seeing how this behavior can be watched and quantified online (as in, how many people use your site’s “Tell A Friend” email link). Thanks for tracking this interesting measure of brand equity, Ron.

  2. Jeff, I share your enthusiasm in regards to web-based behavior measurement applications. I think we are all coming to terms with the fact that itunes knows our musical tastes better than we do.

    As for NPS, I think we have all concluded there is not a magic wand in management. The only real solution for alleviating management delusion is keeping decision makers firmly grounded in the sometimes harsh yet unadulterated reality of statistically based decision making.

  3. Let’s be frank – management science CAN be an oxymoron! I recently took a WSJ reporter to task ( because she had mistaken a simple problem solving/management philosophy as the root of many corporate ailments.

    Flavor-of-the-day fixes are abundant in corporations today. Most are based on the very same ideas with a different coat of paint. While I agree with the basic gist of the original post, I do think data-driven decision making, aka Six Sigma, is an appropriate tool in most organizations.

    There are those out there who – either due to paucity of knowledge or ulterior agendas – brazenly tout solution X over solution Y. I choose solution “data” over all others…and I have the DATA to back up my logic!

  4. Shahbaz — Thanks for your comment. Not only can management science be an oxymoron, but the irony of the situation is that for some mgmt scientists, their pet finding becomes their “religion”. So I guess I shouldn’t have used the word “versus” in the title of the post — and used the word “equals” instead.

    Your critique of the WSJ view on Six Sigma is spot on. You must be loving the Biz Week article that proclaims that six sigma “almost smothered” 3M’s idea culture. 🙂

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