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Management Advice - 90% Crap

Management Advice - 90% Crap

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03/18/2014

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Which 90%
is Crap?
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by Bob Sutton, Stanford University
Management Advice:
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As the dot.com boom was fading away in 2001,For tune published an article by management
guru Gary Hamel that still drives me up the wall. He proposed \u201cHamel\u2019s Law of Innovation,\u201d
an inverse log scale where, \u201c[f]or every 1,000 ideas, only 100 will have enough commercial

promise to merit a small scale experiment, only 10 of those will warrant a substantial \ue001nan- cial commitment, and of those only a couple will turn out to be unquali\ue001ed successes.\u201d Hamel never mentions that variations of this \u201claw\u201d have been discussed, developed, and studied in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of articles and books on organizations before his \u201cNew Math\u201d

ever appeared inFor tune.

At \ue001rst, I couldn\u2019t believe that someone as well-read as Hamel claimed an old idea was new
and that he had invented it. But I eventually realized the problem wasn\u2019t Gary Hamel, or any
other individual making claims of originality. Rather, his column re\ue002ected a prevailing prac-
tice in the business knowledge business. I asked two formerFor tune columnists why \u201cHamel\u2019s
Law\u201d and similar claims that old ideas are brand new appear so often in the business press.
Both emphasized that you couldn\u2019t blame Hamel\u2014that was just how things were done. Both

writers even speculated that someFor tune editor probably had inserted the phrase, \u201cHamel\u2019s
Law,\u201d to create the impression that the magazine publishes exciting new ideas. After all old
news doesn\u2019t sell magazines!

This is just one of the many inane practices that reign in the market for business knowledge. Granted, \u201cHamel\u2019s Law\u201d has the virtue of being supported by a vast body of evidence. But it is still the kind of thing that undermines progress because an idea can\u2019t be re\ue001ned, extended, and improved over the years if every person who \u201cdiscovers\u201d it claims it is brand new. It is

The waybu si ness k nowled ge is sold makes it
evenh a rder to tellgood adv ice frombad.
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also the kind of thing that drove Je\ue000 Pfe\ue000er and I to write Hard Facts, Dangerous Hal\ue000-Truths,
and Total Nonsense: Profting \ue000rom Evidence-Based Management. Not only were we frustrated
by the percentage of useless, wrong, and (in the case of \u201cHamel\u2019s Law\u201d) recycled advice that

rains down on managers from the business press, management consultants, gurus, and yes, academic researchers like us, we realized that the way business knowledge is sold makes it even harder to tell good advice from bad.

I wish I could wave my magic wand and provide you with a 100% reliable and shock-proof
\u201cmanagement advice crap detector.\u201d Alas, life is too messy and uncertain, the evidence that
we have to work with is too crude, and the researchers who interpret their \ue001ndings are too
biased. Anyone who tells you that their business advice (including this advice) is nearly always
right is, well, full of crap. But we\u2019ve found \ue001ve guidelines that can increase your hit rate, that
will help you do a better\u2014if imperfect\u2014job of deciding which advice to ignore, study more

closely, and perhaps implement on a trial basis.
TreaT Old Ideas as If They are Old Ideas
My Stanford colleague, Tony Bryk, describes American educational policy as \u201cThe United

States of Amnesia,\u201d because the same bad ideas\u2014like \ue002unking lots kids (i.e., \u201cending social promotion\u201d) and tying teachers\u2019 pay to student scores\u2014sweep through school systems every few years. There is a huge body of research that shows they are ine\ue000ective, yet no one seems

to remember these policies have failed over and over in the past. And even when an idea, like

\u201cHamel\u2019s Law,\u201d is supported by evidence, as I said, no progress can be made on ideas that are
constantly being rediscovered. That is why, after I read about Hamel\u2019s \u201cNew Math,\u201d I proposed
Sutton\u2019s Law: \u201cIf you think you have a new idea, you are wrong, Someone else probably
already had it. This idea isn\u2019t original either; I stole it from someone else.\u201d

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