What Management Is
Preface When Everything Changes, What Stays the Same?
As any good manager will tell you, dealing with change is one of management’s most difficult responsibilities. Competition is dynamic, even among nonprofits, and the arena in which organizations operate is constantly changing. Customers’ needs shift. New business models and new rivals appear without warning. Old technologies evolve and new ones are created. A new generation takes its place in the workforce, bringing with it new attitudes and values. But the fundamental job of management—creating value for customers by helping people to be more productive and innovative in a common effort—hasn’t changed one bit.
Seasoned leaders who have lived through two or three decades of ground-shaking change understand this. They have experienced one shock after another and lived to tell the tale. Globalization, the Internet, capital market innovation, social media—each of these, as it arrived, felt like a major earthquake that would forever change the business landscape. As shifts like these are underway, and as you are forced to deal with them, it can feel like you are living through something so radically different that it renders obsolete everything you do and know.
Some management books feed off that feeling. They overstate the case for change, all the while drowning managers in empty jargon and insisting that all the old rules are useless when just the opposite is true. In periods of great change, you need the time-tested fundamentals more than ever in order to make sense of what’s unfolding around you.
Dealing effectively with change, then, requires a clear understanding of what doesn’t change. To know what really is different, you must first know what stays the same and why. That’s what this book is all about—the enduring fundamentals, ideas that have stood the test of time. Social media, for example, may well replace established channels of distribution and communication, but the fundamental need to reach and serve customers remains the same. If I were writing this book today, I might choose different organizations to illustrate those ideas—Zynga instead of eBay, Zara instead of Target, Zipcar instead of Enterprise. The names change and the context changes, but the core ideas stay the same.
Organizations that were once highly successful often falter. Dell, Inc., is a case in point. After almost three decades, Dell’s direct business model has run out of steam. But that doesn’t undermine the fact that it illustrates beautifully the elements of a good business model or that its managers succeeded in finding performance measures that matched and supported the value they were trying to create—an important lesson for any organization. Dell no longer has the competitive advantage it once enjoyed, but that doesn’t invalidate the concepts the Dell story illustrates. Management is easier to describe than it is to do. Even outstanding companies make mistakes. Good strategies can be enduring, but they don’t last forever. All the companies in this book convey timeless principles, ideas that don’t change even if the facts of the case do.
Management is a discipline. Once mastered it will help you to navigate the external shifts in the business environment and those internal to your own organization. I’ll go a step further. I believe the core ideas have never been as timely and relevant for so many people working in both the private and public sectors as they are today.
Why do I say that? Consider this assessment from BusinessWeek, which chose What Management Is as one of the best books of the year when it first appeared: “At a moment when many are disillusioned by the blatant self-interest of outrageously paid business leaders, this book is an urgent call to get back to the basics. It reminds us why the discipline of management truly matters. It rejects the notion that a simple fad can make a meaningful difference. . . . It will help leaders understand better how the ideas that form the foundation of good management have . . . powerfully altered our economy and our lives. That’s a potent message in this disillusioning time.”
If anything, we may be even more disillusioned and certainly more conflicted about management today. You don’t have to search long and hard to find blatant self-interest and outrageously paid business leaders. At the same time, you don’t have to look far to find incredible business and social sector leaders who have made the world a better place.
But we need to look past those celebrity villains and heroes in order to appreciate the discipline of management and the prosperity it creates. This is the difficult work carried out by legions of managers known only inside their organizations. It’s easy to lose sight of the importance of that work, but our standard of living depends on the productivity and innovativeness of organizations of all sizes and stripes. Organizations don’t just happen by themselves. Management makes them possible. Good management makes them—and society as a whole—more prosperous.
In these challenging economic times, we need many more effective managers, and a renewed and more balanced view of management itself. I hope this book offers readers just that. It contains a dose of realism about what management is and some idealism about what it can and should be. Above all, it is a book about why and how management matters.