What is a ‘Management Fad’?

According to the Harvard Business Review, “fads are typically: simple, relying heavily on buzzwords, acronyms and reductive ideas; prescriptive, listing actions to take under specific circumstances instead of supporting interpretation; falsely encouraging, promising to deliver big results; one-size-fits-all, taking little or no account of differences between companies; novel instead of radical, meaning their originality is superficial; and supported by gurus or disciples, constantly touting the prestige of adherents rather than using hard performance data.”


Management Fads have been popular for decades and in the modern era probably started with Frederick Winslow Taylor’s work on Time & Motion. Since then management has swooned over such fads as Management by Objectives – or by Walking About, “Excellence”, Total Quality Management, Kaizen, Matrix Management, Six Sigma, Balanced Business Scorecard, Investors in People, De-layering, Lean, Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Post-Modernism and Post-Materialism. The list goes on……..

What these and other fads and fashions in management have in common are short lives and flimsy evidence. The management world is highly susceptible to crazes: fads and fashions that change as frequently as clothes styles. And just like clothes styles, some come back again after a few years away, repackaged, re-branded, but essentially the same.

Contrary to what is often thought, management fads aren’t fads because they’re something new. What makes them fads is human nature and its herd instinct.  Like alchemists, managers are constantly looking for the universal panacea that will solve all their ills.  They know one doesn’t exist but hope springs eternal. Then when they see others jumping on the latest fad bandwagon, the two strongest forces in human nature kick in:

  • Greed – This might just be the genuine silver bullet.
  • Fear – That the competition may get ahead in the race.

The rest really is history.

Adrian Furnham has suggested the following ‘process’ for fads:

  1. Academic Discovery: Many faddish ideas can be traced to the stuffy and distinctly un-faddish world of academia.
  2. Description of the Study: This process can last a long time, it usually involves a lot of elaboration and distortion in the process.
  3. Popularisation in a Best Seller: A business writer/guru takes up the call, hears about the finding gives it a catchy title and before you know what, the fad is about to begin.
  4. Consultant Hype and Universalisation: It is not the academic or the author that really powers the fad but an army of management consultants trying to look as if they are on the cutting edge of management theory.
  5. Total Commitment by true believers: At this point the evangelists move from the consultants to the managers.
  6. Doubt, Scepticism, Cynicism and Defection: After pride comes the fall.
  7. New Discoveries: The end of one fad is an ideal time for trainers, writers and consultants to spot the next gap in the market.

Let’s think for a moment who gains from all this?  And who really suffers………