Organizational Behavior: Confessions of a Guru

By Robert I. Sutton  |  Posted 12-01-2002

Organizational Behavior: Confessions of a Guru

The business world is the only place I know where the term "guru" still seems to have a largely positive connotation. In religion and politics, gurus are seen as extraordinary but sometimes dangerous leaders with fanatical followers who enthusiastically—and sometimes blindly—bend to their wishes, even when it results in their own destruction and the destruction of others. Yet the modern business guru is still revered, even during the current downturn. Writers and speakers like Peter Drucker, Tom Peters, Clay Christensen and the current darling, Jim Collins, are celebrated as brilliant individuals with ideas that can revolutionize how we think about and manage companies.

I've always objected to the term "guru" because it implies a flawed and ultimately destructive view of how business knowledge should be developed, sold and used. But I've hesitated to attack the term openly because a little voice inside me says, "You are jealous, you want to be a guru, too; you just aren't as successful as Peters or Collins."

I confess that this evil voice still haunts me. But I worked up the courage to attack "guru-dom" and all it implies when I was included in the Business 2.0 Guide to Gurus in October. My mother is delighted with the publicity, and so is my speaker's bureau. Yet I still feel compelled to urge those in the business press as well as other players in the market for business knowledge to stop using the word "guru" because it implies too many half-truths about how management knowledge is produced, and how it ought to be evaluated and used.

My main objection is that gurus are glorified as lone geniuses who conjure up revolutionary new ideas about strategy, innovation, marketing, managing people and the like. Gurus seem to do everything in their heads without thinking about others' work, while famous scientists thank those who came before them, as Sir Isaac Newton did when he said, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." The implication is that management knowledge is developed through a drastically different process than that in the physical sciences, that only an anointed management genius can generate big new ideas, that they do it alone, and that their ideas are magically produced in complete form without drawing on others' work.

Beware of Experts

Beware of Experts

These are dangerous fictions. Even management gurus who carefully acknowledge their research teams are suspect. I am a big fan of Jim Collins' Good to Great. Like many readers, I especially like his finding that companies led by humble (but relentless) CEOs outperform firms headed by self-important CEOs who care more about themselves than their companies. Collins describes this finding as a surprise to his team.

My objection is that perhaps his team was surprised by this because team members did not use past research (other than Collins' own Built to Last) to bolster or interpret what they found in their tiny sample of 11 "good to great" companies. If they had checked related research, their findings might not have seemed so surprising, and they could have given managers better ideas about what causes hubris, why it undermines performance and what to do about it.

Especially pertinent is a 1997 study by then Columbia University Management Professor Mathew Hayward and his Ph.D student, Donald Hambrick, at showing that CEO hubris led companies to pay excessive amounts when buying firms, which in turn undermined long-term financial performance. The two examined the "acquisition premiums" (the amount paid above the listed stock price) paid in 106 large acquisitions. After ruling out numerous other competing explanations through multiple regression (a far less biased method than Collins' team used), they found that firms led by "self-important" CEOs consistently paid larger premiums, presumably because they were overconfident in their abilities to transform acquired firms into top performers. This careful study used measures of CEO self-importance or hubris, including media praise, just as Good to Great did.

So what is the harm in pretending that the same old ideas are brand new? After all, it's hard to sell a magazine claiming that "the same old stuff is inside, nothing new here." But if management knowledge is to improve, if we actually want financial performance, innovation and mental health at work to keep getting better, we need to keep building on and refining proven old ideas. By over-glorifying gurus and their breakthroughs, pretending the same old ideas are brand new, we undermine such progress.

My other objection to guru-dom is that, much like cult leaders and the zealots who follow them, gurus often proclaim to have found the magic answer that can help any company succeed. They also say or imply that if you don't use their magic, your company will falter or fail. We are told to "innovate or die," to lead the revolution, to make systemwide changes like Six Sigma and business process reengineering, to adopt balanced scorecards and just-in-time inventory systems and on and on—or our competitors will put us out of business. The problem, however, is that gurus and those who hawk their wares rarely talk about drawbacks.

For example, it took years for purveyors of business process reengineering to admit that such projects nearly always involved layoffs, and that the fear, confusion and lost skills caused by poorly implemented layoffs often negated gains from the reengineering process. Similarly, right now, major companies—including Sun and 3M—are following GE's lead and are using Six Sigma programs to increase efficiency and quality and to decrease costs. I am a big fan of Six Sigma and related quality programs, but those who press for them rarely mention how hard they might be to implement, or that they might not work for everyone. Consider research by Mary Benner and Michael Tushman, which shows that firms in the photography and paint industries that devoted more resources to improving operational efficiency through efforts like ISO 9000 programs actually became less innovative over time. This finding was especially pronounced for film manufacturers entering the digital camera industry, where the focus on making incremental improvements in efficiency made it harder to implement the sweeping changes required for switching to digital technology.

How to Spot a

Phony">

How to Spot a Phony

So what is a manager to do? There are a lot of people out there selling a lot of ideas, and some of those ideas are good. The challenge is to tell the good from the bad. For starters, I propose three guidelines that managers can use to help them decide.

First, be wary of people who say they have invented something new, and who swear you can't get it from anyone else. There are few, if any, new ideas about management practices. On top of that, most old ideas are good (or their flaws known) and most new ideas are bad (or at least their flaws are not known). As my Stanford colleague Jeffrey Pfeffer likes to say, "Instead of being interested in what is new, we ought to be interested in what is true."

Second, if you hear claims that some management genius has a breakthrough idea—and there is no sign that his or her ideas are based on others' work—assume the person is being dishonest or ignorant. Follow people like Stephen Covey, who says he hasn't invented the ideas he talks about; he is just reminding people of things that matter, but which they sometimes forget.

Third, if someone tries to sell you a new program or practice, ask that person what might go wrong during implementation, and how your business or people might suffer even if you implement correctly. If they can't or won't answer your questions, find someone else to help you—or better yet, urge them to visit your competitors.

Robert I. Sutton is a management science and engineering professor at Stanford University and author of Weird Ideas That Work: 11 1/2 Practices for Promoting, Managing and Sustaining Innovation. Sutton also co-leads Stanford's Center for Work, Technology and Organization. His next column will appear in February.