Book Reviews

Flawed Advice and the Management Trap: How Managers Can Know When They’re Getting Good Advice and When They’re Not

By Chris Argyris

Oxford University Press, 2000, $34.95

The advice biz is booming. Consultants are the new superstars of corporate North America. Management books bow the bookshelves.

And the consultants and books bear the same message: Decentralize decision making. Everyone is a leader and every employee’s opinion is valued. If only every business worked this way, North America would be a (profitable) worker’s paradise.

Of course, it isn’t, and Chris Argyris, professor of organizational behaviour at Harvard University, knows why. In his excellent Flawed Advice, Argyris explains that this rhetoric ignores three bedrock management mind-sets: Be in control; win, don’t lose; suppress negative feelings. In order to change that psychology, it must first be acknowledged, and according to Argyris, most advice professionals can’t because they want to be in control; they want to win; they suppress negative feelings by not challenging assumptions.

Argyris’s advice is this: Apply the scientific method to the advice you receive. Demand that it be predictive. Demand that it be testable.

Above all, Argyris advocates for honesty in dealing with employees and colleagues. Which is always good advice.

— David Rosenbaum

Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplace

By Ron Zemke, Claire Raines and Bob Filipczak

Amacom Books, 1999, $39.95

After reading the rigorously analytical Flawed Advice (see above), it’s jarring to confront the sweeping generalizations and unverifiable advice handed out in Generations at Work. Is it useful to be told that Nexter music includes the Spice Girls and Puff Daddy, that Boomers can be motivated by perks such as company cars, and that Veterans should be managed by giving them a picture of themselves with the CEO? I think not.

— David Rosenbaum

Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate

By Michael Schrage

Harvard Business School Press, 1999, $43.95

Have you been giving short shrift to your simulations? Ignoring your prototyping portfolio? Michael Schrage, a research associate at the MIT Media Lab, has written a book that may force you to rethink the way your company innovates.

Prototyping and other creative brainstorming processes are the “serious play” that leads to breakthrough innovations.

Among other examples, Schrage uses auto manufacturing to show how faster prototyping changed an industry. Until the early 1990s, General Motors used computer-aided design (CAD), but only after building a clay model first. Toyota, on the other hand, designed cars entirely with CAD, making its speed-to-market twice as fast as GM’s.

Changing an existing prototyping culture is not without perils, and flawed assumptions can wreck not only prototypes but entire companies. But Schrage builds a convincing argument that the way companies design and interact with simulations lies at the heart of breakthrough innovation.

— Todd Datz

Simplicity: The New Competitive Advantage in a World of More, Better, Faster

By Bill Jensen

Perseus Books, 2000, $36.50

If he were truly interested in bringing simplicity to the huddled corporate masses, consultant Bill Jensen would have started with his own book. He repackages some well-worn communication theories with homey anecdotes, old survey results and quotes from people in well-known companies, and exhorts readers to revolutionize communication at their companies. His own revolution should include a red pen.

— Christopher Koch