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  • Lawrence A. Bennigson, Ph.D.

Four Qualities of Exceptional Management Thought

It started when my wife complained that my prized collection of business books that I had bought, borrowed, inherited, or stolen was taking up too much of our recently downsized space. I called a friend who had served as Chair of a university Board of Trustees and offered my collection to the business library. I did not expect the message that came back: “only those that are an exceptional contribution.

What constitutes an exceptional contribution? I had been seeking a grateful recipient, not an assignment. But the more I thought about it the more it seemed a worthy question. Given that the earliest copyright date on my shelf goes back more than a half-century, I was curious to explore which books and ideas had stood the test of time.

I scoured the bookshelves for candidates to send to the university library and settled on four essential features or qualities that define an exceptional contribution to business thought and practice. Those qualities – followed by examples of some of the best - include:

  1. Addresses a foundational component or element of competitive organizations

  2. Introduces a broadly impactful perspective

  3. Intuitively joins theory and practice

  4. Creates research and development space for others

Managing Corporate Culture by Stan Davis, 1984, and Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life by Terrance Deal and Allan Kennedy, 1982

Prior to the early 1980’s the concept of culture was considered something relevant to societies or the arts. Culture did not play a role in management thinking. These pioneers changed that. Today, considerations of values, beliefs, patterns of behavior...or culture...are as ubiquitous in the world of management and leadership as are marketing and finance.

Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors by Michael Porter, 1980

Porter first introduced the relevance and power of macro-economic forces in enabling and shaping competitive strategy in 1970. With this insight, Porter reshaped how practitioners, researchers, and students conceived of strategy. Careers beyond count have been built on the elaboration and advancement of, and challenges to, this perspective.

Future Shock by Alvin Toffler, 1970

Toffler was a journalist on the labor beat. Part of his brilliance was he was not blinded by a narrow definition of his assignment. He was also gifted with the ability to recognize connections...a “connect the dots” guy well before that became popular. Through his labor force glasses, he detected galactic socio-economic stirrings triggered by early digital advances. “Future Shock” opened eyes that could not yet see dramatic changes in the future and showed the way for countless futurists to follow.

Manufacturing in the Corporate Strategy by Wickham Skinner, 1978

Wick was a chemical engineer who managed production facilities at Honeywell before he attended the Harvard Business School. At Honeywell, he found that popular industrial engineering approaches and production line design fell short of yielding performance he thought possible. Wick stayed at HBS to do doctoral work and joined the faculty. There, at the “citadel of strategy,” he found what he had been missing at Honeywell. He introduced the notion of Manufacturing Strategy, the collection of aligned policies that provide a coherent, integrated game plan for competitive manufacturing focus. The field of manufacturing has never been the same.

Organization and Environment: Managing Differentiation and Integration by Paul Lawrence and Jay Lorsch, 1967

Ever since the days of Henri Fayol and Frederick Taylor, organizational studies had emphasized boxes that recognized functional and business distinctions and lines that indicated reporting relationships. Lawrence and Lorsch took a giant step when they added balanced emphasis on how to put the organizational pieces back together in interrelationships that were effective and productive. Their research advanced the science and the art of organizational design in all its interpersonal, cultural, and process complexity just in time to accommodate the organizational challenges of the age of digital prominence and accelerating innovation.

These four qualities capture what are, in my view, the essentials, but experience has also taught me the hazards of over-compartmentalization. Case in point:

My wife and I were visiting Stan Davis in his office in Brookline, Massachusetts recently. We were surrounded by a dozen framed covers of the books he has written on the workforce, culture, and the future. My wife asked him what drew him to do the work he did...for example, why did he address corporate culture. His answer caught my attention. “I’m educated as a sociologist and anthropologist. I was looking for a space that was new to me where I could bring a different paradigm to bear. I didn’t know anything about business.

Each of the authors above contributed essential new management thought because they were seeking “new space,” rather than incremental improvement. As I consider the future of management thinking, practitioners need more contributors who bring that unique mix of personal ambition, insight, curiosity, and courage that motivated and enabled these authors to go beyond the conventional views of their times.

Sage Partner Lawrence A. Benningson contributed this Sage Advice

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