There are clear fashions in consultancy as in so much else – one of the industry’s selling points is that firms can identify something called best practice in one organisation and apply it to others. But that assumes, of course, both that the first organisation’s success is actually a function of the behaviour identified as best practice, and that to whatever extent it is, the success can be duplicated by duplicating the practice.
James Surowiecki (author of the Wisdom of Crowds) puts it down to over generalisation from very small samples – often samples of one – and humans’ tendency to generalise. In a neat article in the New Yorker, he generalises from comparisons between Boeing and Airbus to conclude that:
Because we underestimate how much variation can be caused simply by luck, we see patterns where none exist. It’s no wonder that management theory is dominated by fads: every few years, new companies succeed, and they are scrutinized for the underlying truths that they might reveal. But often there is no underlying truth; the companies just happened to be in the right place at the right time. In 1999, after all, it was hard to find a business book that didn’t hold up Enron as
the embodiment of one important principle or other. Of course, some strategies and structures work better than others, but real meaning emerges only over the long term.