Is this evolution or revolution? Should we consider talk of radical change merely the usual management hype aimed at selling books and consulting services? Are these thinkers just restating ideas that Peter Drucker and others articulated many years ago?
Drucker himself was often skeptical of Revolutions and also cautious about rushing into drastic change that leads to unintended negative consequences. What would Peter Drucker himself make of these calls for large-scale and basic change? Are we really facing an evolution or revolution in management?
It will be interesting to hear what the conference makes of this question. My current take is that the answer is: both. We are dealing with both evolution and revolution.
One the one hand, some of Peter Drucker’s thinking was truly revolutionary, (e.g. his 1973 dictum that “the only valid purpose of a firm is to create a customer”); forty years later, we have still not fully worked through all the implications of this radical thought.
And Drucker himself wasn’t shy at times of make explicitly revolutionary pronouncements as when in 2001 he called the thinking of his friend and pioneering quality consultant W. Edwards Deming “totally obsolete”. So it would be wrong to pigeonhole Peter Drucker as a purely evolutionary thinker.
Although the phrase “management revolution” has often been used to describe the vast changes now under way, some even calling it a “Copernican revolution in management,” I and others have also argued that that none of the elements of the emerging synthesis of management principles is new. Each element has a long history. What is new is putting the elements together all at once in a consistent, coherent complementary fashion. The result “feels” revolutionary, even though, when understood fully, it is truly an evolution of what has gone before.
Furthermore, at the heart of the new synthesis of management thinking is the idea of an evolutionary or iterative approach to management and innovation, with “design thinking”, “agile” and “light footprint” approaches systematically using short work cycles to explore new ways of doing things and getting continuous feedback from users, rather than developing “one single best way” and then imposing a big and often inappropriate plan on an intransigent reality.
There may also be a gap between perception and reality of the changes under way. When the speed and scale of change is extreme, evolution can start to feel like revolution. The mass extinction of species through failure to adapt to a change in the environment is actually evolutionary, though for the species experiencing the extinction, it may not feel evolutionary.
Some of the speakers at the Drucker Forum will argue that the new synthesis is already here and is being implemented on a fairly significant scale by many organizations around the world. For instance, I have written that, for those with eyes to see, we already live in a “golden age of management“. In this sense, there is no need for any new “revolution” to “storm the barricades” to invent the future. The future is already here, although to those organizations still operating in the old mode, making the transition to this more effective way of operating may involve significant change and disruption and thus may feel “revolutionary”.
Richard Straub, president of the Peter Drucker Society Europe, comments: “What makes Drucker so unique was his ability to put things together in a systematic way. When he started to get interested in management he found that there was a lot of good writing about bits and pieces – but there was a lack of a comprehensive view. Thus he moved management from a mere incidental practice closer to a systematic social discipline. At some points he calls it a social technology. He was often quoted as the man who invented management – but he did not see it this way. His mindset was not about revolution but about continuity and change. He abhorred revolutions like the French, the Russian or the Maoist ones. On the other hand he talks a lot about revolutions around us – the the IT revolution or the move towards a knowledge society. Whatever we call it – what’s really important is that he the foundations of a building that did not exist before and we are still using his foundations to build upon.”
Stay tuned to hear what the Drucker Forum itself makes of these issues. Not going to Vienna? No problem! Live streaming of the entire Forum is available here.