In a opinion piece in the FT (Published: March 1 2009 20:09), one of my favorite Columnists, Lucy Kellaway, has really let it rip. She has taken it to the Management Gurus and socked them for their use (or lack of it) of Management Metaphors. Specifically, she lambastes the new piece in HBR, How to Thrive in Turbulent Markets, by Donald Sull.
In her Column (FT.com / Columnists / Lucy Kellaway - Management metaphors are out for the count) she first observes:
"The latest Harvard Business Review contains an 11-page article telling us that the best way to survive financial meltdown and global recession is to be like Muhammad Ali when he met George Foreman for their Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, Zaire.
What the renowned boxer’s performance teaches us about thriving in turbulent markets is that we must all be agile and we have to absorb blows"
Her dénouement is both simple and telling: "All of these metaphors have one thing in common: they are perfectly useless. I defy anyone to show how any of them has helped us understand how businesses behave or help us get better at running them." [the italics set off her words. The bold is mine to add emphasis.]
Without wading into the merits of the debate in this note, there are too many metaphors on my powerpoint slides for me to plead innocence, I make just one observation. How is that the metaphors applied to Business by our leading strategy gurus are so Masculine and muscular in nature. It is so much about warlike terms -- terms such as penetration, and frontal assault abound. Perhaps a more Embracing, Enveloping set of strategic alternatives may something to recommend just as well.
What is the value of Management Metaphors to MBAs? Your responses would be most instructive.
PS. Of Course, to complete the rest of the story, Donald Sull has a response in the FT's letters section on the value of his metaphors. See his response a http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5f0f7f4a-085d-11de-8a33-0000779fd2ac.html.