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Tuesday , October 21 , 2014
You are here:  Resources  >  Articles & White Papers  >  Selecting a Management Approach

©Paul Arveson, 1998
 
One of the reasons why managers are having such difficulty in applying management methods to government problems is this: there are many different schools of thought on management approaches, and each of these schools has its own proponents. Generally, an original proponent makes his or her name in that particular concept, and becomes an 'expert' and a 'guru' of it. There is little incentive to integrate this one approach with others.
That job is left to the poor managers who have to figure out how to apply what theory to their business problems. They have heard something about MBO, TQM, BPR, ISO-9000, CMM, ABC, BSC, and all the other buzz words and acronyms of management -- but they have received precious little guidance as to what to select that best fits their business needs, and the top-level requirements such as the GPRA. Usually, however, managers will tend to use the approach with which they are most familiar, which is probably project management or program management.
At any point in time, management culture tends to be dominated by one school of thought. Currently an emerging idea is the 'balanced scorecard'. The book on this theory by Kaplan and Norton is currently one of the top 10 best sellers in the field. Management consultants and writers tend to adopt the theory that is currently in vogue, and its popularity thus tends to grow rapidly to a peak, until it is superseded by the next new idea. The schools come and go approximately every 10 years. A similar phenomenon seems to take place in other social sciences, such as psychology, sociology, and education.
 
Thomas Kuhn's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions analyzed this phenomenon. Although its conclusions may be taken too far, the general description of the process seems true enough:
 
A revolutionary new idea comes out of the blue, and champions and followers arise to promote it.
 
A school of thought and literature arises around the subject.
 
The idea becomes so popular that it becomes part of the 'establishment'. Its view is unquestioned and it dominates the scene for awhile. 
 
Anomalies, counterexamples and new ideas emerge that cause the original idea to be deeply questioned.
 
A period of conflict between proponents and opponents prevails.
 
One of the new ideas takes over the field, except for a few die-hards who have little but historical influence.
 
The old idea may not be forgotten, but is absorbed into the new idea as a 'special case' or a 'useful fiction' that may be helpful in certain situations. (This appears to be the current status of Freudian theory within psychotherapy, for example).
 
Management Flexibility
A manager who only has experience in one approach, such as project management, may have difficulty in adapting to changing demands. A manager can be much more effective if he or she is able to select a management approach that is most appropriate to the desired need or goal. This adaptability or 'eclectic' flexibility may prove very useful in the changing government management environment.
There is no good reason why managers must follow the latest school of management thought. On the other hand, just because an idea is new does not mean that it should be dismissed. There are reasons why one particular approach is better than another depending on the strategic goal or need. The balanced scorecard, for instance, appears to be a very appropriate technique for meeting the urgent management needs of many Government agencies, such as their need to comply with the requirements of the GPRA. However, this need should not blind managers to other, perhaps even more pressing goals of their organization that may require a different approach.
 
The following table was developed to aid in selection of a management approach, depending on the conditions and need of the organization (strategic goal). The conditions will partly determine the best option. (The terms are defined here.)

 

Time Horizon (years)
Strategic Goal
Change Readiness
Technical Level
Risk Tolerance
Recommended Option
2-3
GPRA Compliance
Moderate
High
Moderate
Balanced Scorecard
3-6
>30% cost reductions, survival
High
High
High
BPR
1-3
20% Cost reductions
Moderate
Moderate
Moderate
BPI
Long term
Continuous improvement
Moderate
Moderate
Low
TQM
2-3
Baldrige score elevation
Moderate
High
Low
Balanced Scorecard ABC
2-5
Strategic alignment
Low
Moderate
Moderate
Balanced Scorecard
2-5
Marketing credibility
Low
Low
Moderate
ISO-9000, incremental
2-5
Increased capabilities
Moderate
High
Low
CMM

 

Note that not all possible combinations of conditions are included in the table. If your conditions are beyond the levels indicated here (e.g. low risk tolerance when 30% cost reductions are needed), then it is likely that a 'best option' does not exist for your situation. You may need to gain additional senior management support and tolerance for risk before conducting strategic activities.
Details about each of these approaches may be found in books and at web sites listed in the Links.