Like a lot of people, I spent time this summer reading books and articles that looked interesting or were recommended by friends during the year. I also did a lot of Internet surfing, checking Web sites, reading blogs, and getting a feel for who’s doing what. I have to say, it’s impressive. There are a lot of creative and hard working people out there, particularly in the start-up world and in social entrepreneurship. But I also came across what I call the “Five Easy Pieces” style of business thinking. It’s not about the movie as much as the way people go about dealing not just with business issues but life in general.
It’s like this. As a management style, Five Easy Pieces is about creating and following formulas to get you from Point A to Point B in as easy and “logical” a manner as possible. Everything is laid out and defined. The problem is that business, whether management, finance, marketing, or operations, doesn’t work like that. It’s much more complicated, as is life (I’m sure I don’t have to explain this, but if you have any doubts just watch the movie again). You can’t deal with vendors, communicate with a team, improve your leadership style, or even get hired for a job in five easy steps, pieces, or anything else.
We’ve all seen the ezine articles proclaiming 7 Habits, 6 Signs, 5 Ways, 4 Steps, 3 Cues, 2 Things, and 1 Surefire Method to do x or y. I am almost tempted to add, “and a partridge in a pear tree…” It’s as if I am going to become an outstanding leader if I put everybody in a circle and talk about our summer vacation or use “I” statements. Maybe I could create small groups and give each one a name, a color, a funny name tag. This week I came across “Three Essential Questions for the Ultimate Job Candidate.” I suppose you could substitute anything in place of candidate: boss, team, problem coworker, spouse, Little League coach, hairdresser. A lot of these articles also claim to have discovered a “breakthrough” something or other that will transform my life. Really? I tend to believe Ecclesiastes in that regard: there’s nothing new under the sun.
I blame Cosmopolitan. They seem to have perfected the short-order approach to life, primarily regarding sex techniques and how to apply mascara, but their skin-deep analysis of what men and women really want has become pervasive, affecting even the most respected business publications. Those publications are trying to compete not just with each other but in a business environment in which people are clamoring for the next big thing, from analytics to cloudsourcing. And don’t get me started about so-called “best practices,” which is related to Five Easy Pieces in its off-the-rack approach to business. Of course, you see best practices everywhere nowadays. I think it’s a symptom of the rush to sit at the cool table in the high school cafeteria.
Is this a problem of journalism, which not so very long ago was looked down upon as a bastardized form of literature (remember “yellow journalism”)? Our heritage of American pragmatism? Our cult of celebrity and sensationalism? Or maybe just trends in management theory? I don’t know. Maybe all of these, maybe none. It’s hard to believe that serious theorists and practitioners take this approach, though.
Before I ride off on my high horse into the sunset, let me leave you with this bit of poetic justice. Just yesterday as I was reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (you know, on the beach), I came across his “five ways in which the soul arrives at truth.” I read through the five ways five times. Bitching about things wasn’t one of them.
I guess I’ll have to find some other way.