[Paleopsych] NYT: When Business Has Questions, Drucker Still Has Answers
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Sun Jan 29 21:02:13 UTC 2006
When Business Has Questions, Drucker Still Has Answers
Off the Shelf
By ROGER LOWENSTEIN
PETER F. DRUCKER, the management thinker and consultant, wrote about
40 books and inspired executives from Alfred P. Sloan to John F. Welch
Jr. and Bill Gates, not to mention political figures like Winston
Management writing will probably never produce a Shakespeare, but when
Mr. Drucker died last November, at 95, he was acknowledged to be the
closest contender. His 1967 classic "The Effective Executive," just
reissued as a trade paperback by HarperCollins, has lost little of its
relevance; indeed, the passage of time has mostly confirmed him as a
About 25 years ahead of others, he foresaw that the decentralized
structure he had long applauded at General Motors would someday saddle
it with vestigial and meaningless car divisions.
Mr. Drucker also recognized, a generation before it became a
new-economy cliché, that companies hoping to be competitive in the
future should never become too comfortable with existing technologies,
no matter how successful. As he put it, to create the future is to be
"the enemy of today."
If the book, whose rerelease was planned by HarperCollins before Mr.
Drucker's death, remains imperfect, it is owing to the discipline of
management consulting itself. What is it that managers actually do,
and how is one to teach it? It's a mushy science at best.
Perhaps recognizing the innate limitations of his field, Mr. Drucker
wasn't interested in forging "brilliant" executives, but in developing
"effective" ones. Effective management is about picking the right
battles and making sure that the troops are aware of the aims. It
relies less on genius than on sound, well-practiced technique. Indeed,
he wrote on the very first page, "Effectiveness can be learned."
Mr. Drucker's foremost counsel was to stop wasting time, a problem he
saw as endemic. He urged executives to monitor rigorously the hours
and minutes they devoted to each task - and to do so twice a year.
Perhaps this dictum was the origin of the comical-seeming vogue, which
I remember from my childhood in the 1960's, of efficiency experts
traipsing behind the boss, stopwatches in hand.
Mechanistic as the concept was, Mr. Drucker had a singular insight.
It's not that necessary jobs were done too slowly, but that executives
spent much of their time on functions that did not advance their
goals. Indeed, the higher an executive climbed, the more their time
was claimed by others.
Nonetheless, Mr. Drucker aimed his prescriptions far beyond the circle
of senior managers or, indeed, managers of any rank. After all, who
among us does not waste time? To Mr. Drucker, an executive was any
worker - government official, advertising agent, senior clerk - whose
job required decision-making. He even had a name for this emerging
class: the knowledge worker, who produces not tangible products but
"knowledge, ideas, information." In effect, he had coined the first
term for the information age.
Mr. Drucker is most famous for asserting that labor should be viewed
as an asset, not a cost. He thought that executives should focus more
on what they, individually, can contribute and less on what is wrong
with their staffs.
Like other Druckerisms, this prescription would seem applicable well
beyond the realm of management - to members of a sports team, for
example, or partners in a marriage. It is management science tempered
by Zen, or at least an appreciation for one's fellow employees.
Perhaps today he would be a guest on "Oprah."
He prized Japanese managers for empowering their workers - since they
couldn't fire them, they had little choice - but he recognized, even
in 1967, that the Japanese model was too rigid. Eventually, it would
calcify and rot. He did not quite describe the ideal model for
decision makers because it did not yet exist. It is, of course, the
knowledge company of today - Google or Microsoft or, given its
extensive use of data on inventory and the like, Wal-Mart.
Mr. Drucker, however, was slow to grasp the effectiveness of smaller
companies. This is curious, because he diagnosed the bureaucratic
failings of large outfits adroitly. So ensnared were they in their own
politics that (big-company) managers tended to ignore the outside
world, or to see it "only through thick and distorting lenses." Office
politics would come before customers.
But it did not seem to occur to him, at least here, that there was an
effective alternative to size. Perhaps that was because he was too
much the social scientist, or the "social ecologist" as he elsewhere
described himself. A Viennese Jew born in 1909 and forced to take
refuge in California in World War II, Mr. Drucker nurtured a Teutonic
affection for process and systematic thinking.
Most business issues, he argued, were generic issues - repetitions of
familiar problems cloaked in the guise of uniqueness. Henry Ford, he
argued, misread this by inventing a car, the Model T, that was
intended to last forever. But its popularity was fleeting. Mr. Ford
had arrived at only a specific solution. By contrast, Mr. Sloan at
G.M. built an enduring organization. Mr. Sloan realized, Mr. Drucker
maintains, "that the problem was generic and could only be solved
through a rule, a principle."
SIMILARLY, Mr. Drucker, who takes as many examples from government as
he does from business, faults President John F. Kennedy's "pragmatism"
for his various foreign policy blunders. For what is pragmatism but an
insistence on meeting each problem as it develops - that is, a
"refusal to develop rules"?
Mr. Drucker believed that the executive who solves "generic
situations" can handle most events as "cases under the rule." In a
large organization, it then becomes a simple matter to extrapolate the
rule, or to apply it across many situations. If only life were that
All too often, real life presents special cases for which no existing
rule is applicable - or, even worse, for which a number of
contradictory rules seem to apply. Consider the decision of whether to
hire consultants. Based on the fate of many ill-advised companies, one
might decide to shun them. But that would not take into account the
luck of those that hired Peter F. Drucker.
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