[Paleopsych] NYT: When Business Has Questions, Drucker Still Has Answers

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When Business Has Questions, Drucker Still Has Answers 

    Off the Shelf

    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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