There is no single, coherent theory which will tell you how to manage. Instead we have an evolving set of ideas that have appeared in waves, each appropriate to their time and circumstances. As the flaws in old models have emerged, new ones have appeared to replace them. This continuous change has led to the models being described as “management fads”, but I don’t think this is helpful. Each wave of ideas has generated sets of tools and methods which can still be useful, provided they are applied appropriately.
The medieval model of Master Craftsman with his team of Apprentices has produced works of art that have never been surpassed (I’m thinking of Leonardo and the Mona Lisa as an example). Even today, if you want a cottage roof thatching or a drystone wall rebuilding, the people who will do it for you are likely to be organised in this way.
Where management techniques become fads are in their uncritical application. A decade ago I witnessed a drive to get voluntary organizations signed up to ISO9000, an international quality management standard. Why, exactly? Principles that might work well for car manufacturing do not translate well into small community groups, where enthusiasm and freely given time are the key drivers.
Front-line military combat units may do well with a flexible, fractal organization, but this structure may not be appropriate for running a 10-year programme to design and procure battle tanks or helicopters. Even the front-line combat unit will need to be managed differently depending on its mission – peacekeeping is not the same as disaster relief or counter-insurgency.
This section of our website describes a range of models that you can consider, but we don’t have the space for more than a brief overview. Most mainstream techniques have a corpus of literature and research to support them, so if a model interests you it would be well to research it further before jumping in.
Models that have been used in the past can be understood by studying the organizations that used them. However if your organization aspires to be at the leading edge of change, there may be few examples to follow, or it may be too early to judge whether the strategies the trailblazers are using will continue to work in the future. For this reason many modern theories use scientific discoveries as metaphors. There are management theories built around quantum physics, complexity theory, statistics and much more.
For what it’s worth my money is on the biological models – life has existed on this planet for over 4 billion years, so it’s shown itself to be amazingly resilient. The more I learn about how nature does things, the more amazed I am. Therefore wherever possible I look for examples from biology, physiology and neuroscience. It may not be immediately apparent how to apply these concepts from biology to the business world, but my own experiences of doing so have taught me that the effort is worthwhile.
Image: World War 2 Operations Room where the tactical situation in the air was modelled in near real time to allow aircraft deployments to be controlled.