Management has regressed, believes Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen – in large part because innovation has become a numbers game rather than “substantive discussion about things not known.” But, as he suggested in his closing comments during the sixth annual Global Peter Drucker Forum, it’s perhaps more so because the impact of good ideas is hampered by differences in language and terminology.
“I’ve been crawling inside companies, listening to what managers talk about. What is the agenda when they have a management meeting? A shocking proportion of their conversation is spent on topics like ‘where are we going to get the numbers so that we can deliver the numbers to Wall Street on time?’” explained Professor Christensen in an interview withHarvard Business Review.
Numbers give managers a common vocabulary, but they don’t necessarily give the best understanding of what is happening around us and why. Managers must “get ahead of themselves and create the insight to frame what is really going on in the world,” he urges. “And to do that, you actually have to interact richly with all of these people and all of these problems, and then develop data to describe accurately what’s going on.”
These imperatives are the cornerstones of good theory, which not only allows us to predict the future, but also interpret the present. And according to Professor Christensen, building theory in three integral stages is essential to the advancement of management.
- Dumpster dive. Jump in and hang out. Figure out what is going on in the world. This is core to creating data, or a proxy for reality.
- Work with what you’ve created. Do tests: subtract this from that, regress this versus that, chart this or that. Manipulate the data and find out what it has to say.
- Understand what it all means. Develop a construct of how the world works. What really causes things to happen?
Good theories – like good ideas – will have minimal impact without clarity, consensus and consistency in how they’re talked about and acted upon, however. “If we can focus the message, we can help people do things that they historically couldn’t do,” says Professor Christensen. The future of management depends on it.