One of the major problems that physics has dealt with during the last hundred years is the search for a unitary principle or unitary theory. For a long time physics studied electricity and magnetism as 2 separate forces. Then came the discovery of electromagnetism as one of the elementary forces of the universe. Simple common sense saw space and time as 2 quite separate realities – until Einstein explained the space-time continuum. Many physicists now search for the single, unitary theory that will explain the interrelatedness of gravitation, the electromagnetic force, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and the Higgs field.
In the field of management theory there is a similar quest for, if not a single principle, at least a single explanation, a single list of the elements that make for good management, good leadership. If only we can find it, if only we can figure out how to teach it to managers and leaders . . . .
As in the field of physics, there are many quite serious, profound thinkers contributing their efforts to the search. And, as in the field of physics, it may, ultimately, be an illusory quest.
What makes someone a good manager or leader?
Why do smart, successful executives fail? (It was Sydney Finkelstein’s presentation at the Human Resource Leadership Forum last Wednesday that got me thinking along these lines.)
What is the correct way to handle conflicts on a team?
What exactly is the proper distinction among vision, mission, goals and objectives?
What is the approach to follow: Six Sigma, Agile, Lean, Cog’s Ladder or any of the multiple other systems of performance and process improvement?
Each and every one of these questions, each and every answer represents a legitimate approach to organizing, systematizing our approach to nagging, ongoing human interaction issues that bedevil organizations such as businesses. We need order in our thinking. We need to have thought beforehand about the resources needed. We need to foresee likely consequences and “side effects” of our actions.
Let’s just not collapse our thinking into a single (unitary) tunnel vision that robs us of our ability to think of alternatives to our own favorite ways of understanding the world. Let’s remember the Law of Large Numbers: “the average of the results obtained from a large number of trials should be close to the expected value, and will tend to become closer as more trials are performed.” (Wikipedia) Often we don’t have enough repeated experiences to make statistically valid generalizations about “the way things work.” We make flawed decisions based on the inadequate, limited information, insights and advice we have available to us.
And we fail. And we adapt.
Is that my “unitary theory”?