What’s the Most Important Problem in Management?

Today’s post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member David Creelman.

What’s the most important problem in management? Is it how to develop great leaders? How to motivate people? How to drive innovation?


The most important problem in management is why the field has failed to make significant progress over the past 50 years. Why hasn’t management advanced like other fields?

The reason isn’t a lack of intelligent thinkers. One of the things that struck me is how many exceptional thinkers have tackled the problems of management. Everyone from creative thinkers such as Clayton Christensen to world-class engineers like Jay Forrester has taken their own stab at improving managerial practice. Yet, as impressive as these individual thinkers are, it just hadn’t added up to all that much. The guy who learned to manage by working in his mom’s diner probably is as much an expert as someone with a wall-full of management textbooks.

The reason also isn’t lack of investment. Just think about how many millions have been spent on MBAs, leadership training, and consultancies. Yet somehow, all this investment hasn’t created an effective science of management.

I believe we’ve dramatically underestimated the difficulty of the problem. Most management thought leadership is the result of two or three people drawing on their experience and small research studies to seek insights. That would work if we were trying to come up with better dessert recipes for our mom’s diner. It won’t work for the insanely complex task of understanding management and organizations.

I explore this topic in my new book, Management for Scientists and Engineers. It’s an unusual book because it’s not a list of tips — it’s about mapping out the scope of the problem as a foundation for future progress.

The root of the problem lies in three areas. First, the fact that the “objects” we deal with in management, such as “integrity,” are vague and essentially impossible to define or measure in the way we would like. Secondly, humans are…well, how do we say this politely…humans are a bit of a mess. They regularly make poor decisions and act according to personal agendas at odds with an organization’s espoused purpose. Finally, organizations themselves are inclined to various disorders. They are more like the person sitting on the couch with a bag of chips watching the Olympics than the athlete racing down the track. Unless we confront just how difficult the challenge of creating a science of management is, then we won’t make progress.

There are some fruitful directions we might follow. First, of course, is evidence-based management and, from there, the work of Phillip Mirvis, Christopher Worley, and Susan Mohrman on “sweet spot” research, which points out how to do the research that will lead to ever-better, evidence-based management. There is still potential in the system dynamic modelling developed by MIT’s Jay Forrester, and in the work of Dave Snowden, who starts from the difficult fact that organizations often are complex adaptive systems we cannot control. And while invoking artificial intelligence often seems like invoking magic, we can already see how Google’s search provides practicing managers with instant access to troves of management folk wisdom.

If you are an inquisitive thinker, perhaps a scientist or engineer, then I hope you’ll take the time to think about the most important problem in management.

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