Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Management of the Absurd – Contrarian Wisdom


One Cardinal Principle I learnt in the Navy was: 

“Never ask your subordinates to do something that you cannot do yourself.” 

It will be advisable for politicians and officers (who have a penchant to bark out orders which are unimplementable) to abide by this principle. 

Another principle (a corollary to the cardinal principle) I followed was: 

It is always better to SHOW people how to do things – rather than TELL them how to do it. 

So – before you gave a task to sailors – as an officer – you should KNOW how to do that task – and  when you want to train your sailors – you should practically demonstrate the procedure to your sailors and SHOW them how to do the task (rather than just tell them how to do it). 

I tried to follow these principles in the Navy – so that I knew the extent of the task I was giving my subordinates – and they knew that I was professionally proficient.

When I became a Teacher/Trainer – the first assignment I gave to my students/trainees was to write a Book Review – and – then – after I was satisfied with their book reviews – I made all students give a presentation on their Book Reviews to the entire group of students/trainees and faculty.

This ensured that my students/trainees read at least one book on the subject – and – it also gave me an idea of their communication skills – so that I could take corrective action. 

In accordance with my principles enunciated above (that I should know and show how to do a thing before telling others to do it) I learnt how to review books and started writing Book Reviews myself to demonstrate that I could review books.

Prior to the advent of the internet – my book reviews were published in various professional journals and also in our in-house magazines. 

After the arrival of internet – I created my own Book Review Blogs” where I would post my reviews.

As a Teacher/Trainer – I taught Engineering/Technology/Management – and – hence – during those days – most of my book reviews pertain to books on those subjects.

Later – as I meandered into creative writing – I started reviewing books of different genres – Fiction (novels, anthologies etc) – Philosophy – Biographies – History – Military Literature – Self Help Books  et al.

Here is a Book Review of a Management Book which I wrote around 17 years ago in the year 1999. 

It is a very interesting Book on Management called Management of the Absurd by Richard Farson.

Read on...

Book Review

Leafing through my beloved books on my bookshelves is one of my favorite pastimes. 

I love the company, the smell, and, the feel of books  as I leisurely browse and glance through the varied books I have collected over the years. 

And then – after browsing for some time  I select one of my beloved books for perusal.

This morning I picked up a delightful management classic called Management of the Absurd by Richard Farson. 

I acquired my copy on 06 May 1999 at the Pune Book Fair. 

(I have this peculiar habit of writing down the Date and Place whenever a buy a Book). 

Management of the Absurd is a laconic book which explores the paradoxes of management in an extremely witty manner.

Let us browse through this wonderful book...

Book Details




ISBN 0-684-80080-2

In his foreword Michael Crichton writes: “In this book Richard Farson reports more than experience; he gives us … wisdom”.

The 172 page book has eight parts and thirty three chapters, and as the author says in the introduction, these chapters need not necessarily be read in sequence, but in whatever order appeals to the reader. 

So, Dear Reader, let’s do just that.

“Morale is unrelated to Productivity” the author says chapter in 27, turning conventional HR wisdom on its head. 

He deprecates management practices of pampering and mollycoddling employees, giving gifts, holding parties, recognizing birthdays, gestures of goodwill and other HR gimmicks designed to court employee favor as a calculated morale-raising strategy. 

Self-actualized people, who were among the greatest achievers in our society, were not necessarily comfortable or happy; they could be ruthless, boring, stuffy, irritating, and humorless and organizations are absolutely dependent on such people. 

You don’t agree, or do you...?

Sounds like a web of contradictions, isn't it...?

That’s why you must read this book, which turns topsy turvy the conventional wisdom you may have learnt during your MBA at B-School. 

This book certainly gives you something to think about.

Effective Managers are not in Control  says the author, as he emphasizing the concept that a leader must have occasional vulnerability.  

Absurdly, our most important human affairs – marriage, child rearing, education, leadership – do best when there is occasional loss of control and an increase in personal vulnerability, the author opines, drawing a parallel between leadership and romance. 

If you know how to have a romance, it isn’t a romance, but a seduction

Not knowing how to do it makes it a romance.

It is the same for leadership, an intangible quality, where management techniques don’t work. That's why leadership can't be taught. 

Genuineness in relationships is the only way to lead professionals.

Training leads to the development of skills and techniques, and suggests the possibility of control. 

Education leads to information and knowledge, which suggests the possibility of understanding, even wisdom. 

Wisdom involves humility, compassion and respect – essential to effective leadership...

What is the difference between Training and Education?

Let me tell you in a nutshell:

Training makes people more alike


Education tends to make people different from each other

So the first benefit of education is that the manager becomes unique and independent

“Don't try to train leaders. Educate them...!” the author exhorts.

Planning is an ineffective way to bring about change. 

Too often planning is an empty ritual designed to make management feel there is something going on in that area.

There are paradoxes and paradoxes, absurdities and absurdities...in this delightful book...!

Sample this: Individuals are strong, but organizations are not...! 

Till I read this book I was given to understand that it was the other way around, and the organisation is paramount and individuals indispensable. 

After observation and contemplation I now realize that it is individuals that make an organization  yes  individuals are strongorganizations are not.

The better things are, the worse they feel  says the theory of rising expectations.

That is why we perform better in adversity.

The Theory of Rising Expectations works in personal life too.

That is why good marriages are more likely to fail than bad ones.

And second marriages are better than first marriages, but shorter...!

In communication, form is more important than content, praising people does not motivate them, and the more we communicate, the less we "communicate".

The ‘meat’ of the book is the chapter on – The “Technology” of Human Relations. 

Exploring the impact of Technology on Human Relations, the author discusses how technology invents us, develops a life of its own and with every application of technology a counter-force develops that is the exact opposite of what we intended. 

The danger is that we become so in love with technological applications that we forget its detrimental effects. 

He illustrates his point with examples of how computer technology increases design capability but stifles creativity

We must focus on Relationship Enrichment rather than acquisition of techniques of management skills, he suggests, since the more important a relationshipthe lesser the management skills matter.

The book is replete with startling insights.

The author states his message in his introduction:

“I believe many programs in management training today are moving us in the wrong direction because they fail to appreciate the complexity and paradoxical nature of human organizations. Thinking loses out to how-to-do-it formulas and techniques, if not to slogans and homilies, as the principal management guides.”

This is a refreshing, original and thought provoking book  something different from the run-of-the-mill stuff. 

This book presents a unique perspective of management theories  sometimes turning conventional management wisdom topsy-turvy on its head.

Management of the Absurd is a management classic  a rare gem in the plethora of management literature. 

Do read this insightful book – you will be glad you did. 

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