MANY CONSULTANTS ADVOCATE A THREE-PART ENGINEERING APPROACH:
Find multiple examples of organisations that have coped with similar challenges successfully. Reverse-engineer the reasons for their success, looking for features that they share in common. Present these shared ‘success factors’ as precepts, rules and principles that should be implemented by all those who wish to achieve similar levels of success. This approach sounds great, and the growth of the consultancies pushing it cannot be gainsaid. But it simply doesn’t work. It ’s easy to describe the engineering approach, but not to put it into practice.
Start by considering an extreme and highly visible case. At the outset of the Iraq War, US President George W Bush expressed the hope that Iraq would become a federal democracy and a beacon to all the totalitarian states in the Middle East. The US then set about creating facsimiles of various American institutions in Iraq – simulating the structures that were critical to the success of its own democracy. But if these were necessary conditions, then clearly they were not sufficient. What Iraq has today is far from a viable democratic system.
Similarly, in the management world, we constantly see the engineering approach being imposed on companies and falling short. For example, W Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, the authors of Blue Ocean Strategy, examined the emergence of outrageously successful companies like Cirque du Soleil and declared that they had discovered the keys to their successes. Though Kim and Mauborgne never claimed that the organisations where they had studied had consciously implemented the ‘ blue ocean’ principles, they did argue that it was ‘as if ’ they had. How else could they have moved their businesses into such eminent positions?
Unfortunately, this approach has done no more for corporate strategic success than it has for nation-states. Managers are presented with inspiring stories from the past that they quickly discover cannot be replicated, and with abstract principles that sound incontrovertible yet cannot be implemented. They might, at best, produce facsimiles of certain features of great organisations, or learn to say all the right words about what it will take to succeed. But while they can talk the talk, their organisations can’t walk the walk.
The fundamental problem with the engineering approach is that simple mechanics do not drive outcomes in complex systems, where causes and effects are constantly subject to dynamic adaptation. The conditions in one organisation – or