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Leadership & Business Wisdom

Management and the Liberal Arts

Management is a liberal art.

Management is what tradition used to call liberal art – “liberal” because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; “art” because it deals with practice and application. Managers draw upon all of the knowledge’s and insights of the humanities and social sciences – on psychology and philosophy, on economics and history, on the physical sciences and ethics. But they have to focus this knowledge on effectiveness and results – on healing a sick patient, teaching a student, building a bridge, designing and selling a “user-friendly” software program.

Practice Comes First

Decision makers need to factor into their present decisions the “future that has already happened.”

Decision makers – in government, in the universities, in business, in the labor unions, in churches – need to factor into their present decisions the future that has already happened. For this they need to know what events have already occurred that do not fit into their present-day assumptions, and thereby create new realities.

Intellectuals and scholars tend to believe that ideas come first, which then lead to new political, social, economic, psychological realities. This does happen, but it is the exception. As a rule, theory does not precede practice. Its role is to structure and codify already proven practice. Its role is to convert the isolated and “atypical” from exception to “rule” and “system,” and therefore into something that can be learned and taught and, above all, into something that can be generally applied.

Long-Range Planning

The future requires not just happen if one wishes hard enough.

The future requires decisions – now. It imposes risk – now. It requires action – now. It demands allocation of resources, and above all, of human resources – now. It requires work – now.

The idea of long-range planning – and much of its reality – rests on a number of misunderstandings. The long range is largely made by short-run decisions. Unless the long range is built into, and based on, short-range plans and decisions, the most elaborate long-range plan will be an exercise in futility. And conversely, unless the short-range plans – that is, the decisions on the here and now – are integrated into one unified plan of action, they will be expedient, guess, and misdirection. “Short range” and “long range” are not determined by any given time span. A decision is not short range because it takes only a few months to carry it out. What matters is the time span over which it is effective. Long-range planning should prevent managers from uncritically extending present trends into the future, from assuming that today’s products, services, markets, and technologies will be the products, services, markets, and technologies of tomorrow, and, above all, from dedicating their resources and energies to the defense of yesterday. Everything that is “planned” becomes immediate work and commitment.

How to Abandon

Abandonment must be practiced systematically.

“To abandon what?” and “To abandon how?” have to be practiced systematically. Otherwise they will always be “postponed,” for they are never “popular” policies.

In one fairly big company offering outsourcing services in most developed countries, the first Monday of every month is set aside for an abandonment meeting at every management level from top management to the supervisors in each area. Each of these session s examines one part of the business – one of the services one Monday, one of the regions in which the company does business a month later, the way this or that service is organized the Monday morning of the third month, and so on. Within the year, the company this way examines itself completely, including its personnel policies, for instance. In the course of a year, three to four major decisions are likely to be made on the “what” of the company’s services and perhaps twice as many decisions to change the “how.” But also each year, three to five ideas for new things to do come out of these sessions. These decisions to change anything – whether to abandon something, whether to abandon the way something is being done, or whether to do something new – are reported each month to all members of management. And twice a year all management levels report on what has actually happened as a result of their sessions, what action has been taken and with what results.

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