Management models – right, wrong, or just (partially) useful?

I trained as a physicist. While that was a long time ago, it still bugs me intensely when people – even renowned scientists – talk about the ‘laws of physics’. There are no such things…there are, however, useful models that explain observable phenomena. That’s a bit of a mouthful, so the ‘laws of physics’ phrase becomes a useful, if misleading short cut.

I read recently a little about George Box, who is credited with the phrase “all models are wrong”…well, actually, what he said in 1976 in the Journal of the American Statistical Association was:

“Since all models are wrong the scientist cannot obtain a “correct” one by excessive elaboration. On the contrary following William of Occam he should seek an economical description of natural phenomena. Just as the ability to devise simple but evocative models is the signature of the great scientist so overelaboration and overparameterization is often the mark of mediocrity…”

The phrase ‘laws of physics’ imbues that particular branch of science with a level of objective truth, immutability and consequent reverence that it doesn’t deserve.

The same can be said of management models. They have some effective utility, since they describe – to a certain extent – approaches that have worked within certain contexts. The subsequent activity of companies to ‘benchmark’ good practice models often misses key elements of the model, plus the model itself is often incomplete. This leads companies to many erroneous conclusions, especially in the area of innovation management, where aphorisms such as “we should do what Apple/3M/… do”. Again, it’s easy to say, very hard to do, and likely in many cases not actually very relevant.

“So what?…”. Well, I think a useful lesson is that management models, while useful, should always be adapted to individual companies and situations. Lessons learned should extend beyond the typical “what works” and enquire into “how to work it” – commonly called “trade craft” or “art”, and “why it works”, which addresses deeper issues around motivation, metrics and leadership.

This isn’t to say that management books and articles in learned journals are not useful – after all, it is a significant industry – however, they should not be regarded as instruction manuals; probably at best they should be thought of as ‘pointers’ and stimulus for action.

Not everyone may agree with that perspective, but next time you hear the phrase ‘the laws of physics’ remember that they don’t exist…

- Peter Allen