The problem with Ken Blanchard’s books

by Krishna on December 24, 2006

I have read many of Ken Blanchard’s books like the One Minute Manager and Who Moved My Cheese. Many of these books occur high in popularity on the lists of many book vendors including Amazon. Many of my friends in school have also recommended these books. They are very short and easy to read — typically you can finish one of them within a few hours. The books use the methodology of a simple story or parable to explain a business management concept.

I have serious reservations about his books and my personal feeling about his works are that they do more harm than good. First of all, the use of a story to illustrate ideas is a good methodology for readers to easily understand the topic. However, the story is just that — a fictional story that can be manipulated in any way to suit the conclusions that the author wants to make. I have not seen much research to justify the ideas or methods mentioned in the book.

Since the books are easily readable, I assume that a good portion of its readers consist of those persons who have little time for a more theoretical or larger business management book, but want something quick and easy. Blanchard’s books fill the void for this audience. The problem is that this audience never gets to understand important business concepts in the context of the working of the business environment.

By over-simplifying the concept, it is an invitation to the reader to blindly apply ideas without thinking of the whole picture. Take the example of the One Minute Manager which explains how overwhelmed managers can make better use of their time by proper delegation. Good concept, but the explanation in the book makes it very tempting for managers to do paper pushing and make themselves less accessible to subordinates.

The use of metaphors like monkeys and mice in different stories have seeped into misguided management cliches and are highly demotivating and insulting to workers. In “Who Moved My Cheese?”, workers are compared to mice and asked to accept change as a fact of life. But what about management? What is their role? Are workers just supposed to be pawns who have to turn their lives upside down just so that change can be accommodated.

A recurring method in Blanchard’s books is to provide a principle in huge, bold letters in an entire page dedicated to it. This has the makings of a cult, where the principle is supposed to be cast in stone. A egregious example of this occurs in the book “Gung Ho!” where the “Spirit of the Squirrel”, “Spirit of the Beaver”, etc. are mentioned as if they are gospel.

Managers who buy into this start becoming what I term “checklist” managers who start using this specific methodology to start running their organization. Real organizations are far more complex to be run by such checklists which have no proven research foundations. Effective managers need to recognize these books as containing tactics that may be useful in certain circumstances and as part of a larger strategy, not as a silver bullet to solve all the problems within the organization.

Ultimately that is precisely the problem. They are way more inexperienced and raw managers than savvy ones. Books like this hide the seriousness and complexity of management and seem to provide quick fixes. The overwhelmed manager starts implementing them whole-heartedly. When employees get demotivated because of faulty implementation or management speak, the manager blames the employees and tries harder to push the tactics even more, instead of recognizing that the methodology was wrong in the first place.

So what is the solution? If you are a business owner or manager and want to develop true management capabilities in your organization, the first thing you must impress on potential leaders and managers is that there are no shortcuts. Management is hard and requires knowledge, patience, humility and perseverance. Learning is continuous. Show them the right books or literature to read and tell them that each contains only the partial truth. They must develop the right outlook and constantly use information to build up their vision and strategy. And be willing to learn from mistakes and question everything.

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