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What Were They Thinking?: Unconventional Wisdom About Management [Hardcover]

Jeffrey Pfeffer
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 July 2007
Every day companies and their leaders fail to capitalise on opportunities because they misunderstand the real sources of business success.

Based on his popular column in Business 2.0, Jeffrey Pfeffer delivers wise and timely business commentary that challenges conventional wisdom while providing data and insights to help companies make smarter decisions. The book contains a series of short chapters filled with examples, data, and insights that challenge questionable assumptions and much conventional management wisdom. Each chapter also provides guidelines about how to think more deeply and intelligently about critical management issues. Covering topics ranging from managing people to leadership to measurement and strategy, it’s good organisational advice, delivered by Dr. Pfeffer himself.


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard Business School Press (1 July 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1422103129
  • ISBN-13: 978-1422103128
  • Product Dimensions: 21.5 x 16.1 x 2.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 673,211 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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From the Publisher

"Jeffrey Pfeffer has a rare combination of academic rigor and
practical genius. Grounded in research, a revered pioneer in his field -
yet dedicated to helping leaders lead - he stands as one of the sparkling
gems in the field of management."

--Jim Collins, Author, Good to Great, and Co-Author, Built to Last

"I work with real executives every day. An executive is seldom a God,
Devil, Genius or Idiot; an executive, like the rest of us, is a human
being. What Were They Thinking clearly explains why executives make human
mistakes and how these common mistakes can be avoided. You may well think
of your own mistakes and answer the question, `What was I thinking?'"

--Marshall Goldsmith, Executive coach and Author, What Got You Here Won't
Get You There

"A wise book of penetrating intellect wrapped in readable prose that every
student, practitioner, and even expert in business must read. If they
don't, it is their grand omission."

--Jack Valenti, Former President, Motion Picture Association of America

"Jeffrey Pfeffer is one of the leading organizational behavior scholars of
our time. What Were They Thinking provides an accessible and insightful
integration of theory and pragmatism developed through the thoughtful lens
that only Jeff could provide. You will consume this book like a good
Chinese dinner--pick what you want to eat from a rich menu, and expect to
be hungry for more in a few hours.

--Gary Loveman, Chairman, President and CEO, Harrah's Entertainment Inc.

"I can think of no scholar who has done more than Jeffrey Pfeffer to
document how much a company's success depends on how well that company
leverages the strength of its human resources. In What Were They Thinking,
Pfeffer provides numerous examples of the companies that get it wrong and
the companies that get it right. The result is a theoretically-grounded,
practical guide for managers on how they can get the most from their
people."

-- Joel M. Podolny, Dean and William S. Beinecke Professor of Management,
Yale School of Management

From the Back Cover

Why do so many companies make so many missteps—even while led by hard working, smart, and serious people who expend major time and effort trying to do the right thing? In What Were They Thinking? Unconventional Wisdom About Management, Jeffrey Pfeffer provides incisive and engaging responses to this question based on his popular business 2.0 column, “The Human Factor” Pfeffer shows how poor business choices arise when business leaders:

  • FAIL TO CONSIDER THE UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES OF THEIR ACTIONS.

  • For example, when companies get into financial trouble, they often slash wages, benefits and staff. That boosts cash flow in the short run. But it also drives essential talent--and customers--out the door as service, quality and innovation vanish.

  • RELY ON NAÏVE THEORIES OF HUMAN BEHAVIOUR
  • For instance, many executives fall victim to the prevailing—but inaccurate—belief that if you want employess to do something you have to impel them with external forces such as threats or rewards.

  • IGNORE OBVIOUS ANSWERS
  • Many principles governing organizational behaviour are simple and powerful—but companies fail to capitalize on them. To illustrate, leaders could activate the “norm of reciprocity” by demonstrating generosity toward employees and thereby building a loyal and committed workforce. Yet management theory fails to take such obvious solutions into account.

    What Were They Thinking? contains twenty-eight short chapters filled with examples, data and insights that challenge conventional beliefs and much accepted management wisdom. Each chapter also provides guidelines about how to think more deeply and intelligently about a wide range of critical topics—from people management and leadership to performance measurement and competitive strategy.

    Abounding with solid organizational advice—delivered by Pfeffer himself—this book provides the wise and timely business commentary you need to make the smartest possible decisions for your company.


    Inside This Book (Learn More)
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    Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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    Customer Reviews

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    4.7 out of 5 stars
    4.7 out of 5 stars
    Most Helpful Customer Reviews
    7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars Thought-Provoking Pragmatism 7 Aug 2007
    By Robert Morris TOP 500 REVIEWER
    Format:Hardcover
    According to Jeffrey Pfeffer, there seem to be three themes that unify many of the ideas he shares in this volume: "(1) the importance of considering feedback effects - the ideas that actions often have unintended consequences; (2) the nave, overly simplistic, almost mechanical models of people and organizations that seem to dominant both discourse and practice; and (3) the tendency to overcomplicate what are often reasonably straightforward choices and insights." Pfeffer provides an abundance of examples of these and other especially common errors of comprehension and, worse yet, errors of judgment.

    "The message...is that we ought to think before we act, taking into full account feedback effects and using the insights of not only the large body of evidence on behavior but our own common sense and observations. It turns out both common sense and careful thought are in short supply. But that means there are great opportunities for those people and organizations willing to spend the effort to get beyond conventional management wisdom."

    In one of his previous books (Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense), Pfeffer and his co-author, Robert I. Sutton, examine what they call "the doing-knowing gap": doing without knowing, or at least without knowing enough. "People kept telling us about the wonderful things they were doing to implement knowledge - but those things clashed with, and at times were the opposite of, what we knew about organizations and people. Upon probing, we soon discovered that many managers had been prompted by a seminar, book, or consultants to do things that were at odds with the best evidence about what works.
    Read more ›
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    Was this review helpful to you?
    6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
    Format:Hardcover
    Jeffrey Pfeffer is an exceptional management author, who has written twelve great books, among which The Knowing-Doing Gap, Hidden Value, The Human Equation, and Hard Facts. His new book, What Were They Thinking, is based on a series of columns Pfeffer wrote for the magazine Business 2.0. In it, he covers a wide range of topics, from people centered management strategies to creating effective workplaces, using power strategies, thiking differently about success, executive pay and corporate ethics. The great thing in all Pfeffers writing is that whatever he says is so well argued and facts-based. If you're familiar with his earlier books, you will surely recognize many of the points he's making in this book. At the same time, however, there is a certain freshness in this book, maybe due to the fact that it is based on columns. Another reason is there are new examples from the corporate world, and there are many new research references. Friend and colleague of Pfeffer, Bob Sutton, has said this about him: "And no matter how strongly you disagree with him, he has this annoying habit of basing his arguments on the best theory and evidence in peer-reviewed academic publications. Plus when he writes about an unstudied topic, his logic is often so compelling that refuting his arguments is extremely difficult." When reading this book (and practically anything else he has written) you'll find it easy to agree with Sutton: it is very hard to disagree with Pfeffer once you follow his reasoning and evidence. Some of the chapters I liked best in this book were: The courage to rise above, Dare to be different, More mister Nice guy, Curbing the Urge to Merge, In praise of organized labor, Stopping corporate misdeeds. A great book. I think every student of organizational effectiveness should read it.
    Comment | 
    Was this review helpful to you?
    1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
    Format:Hardcover
    This book was descibed by the Financial Times in a review which is a pretty good summary:

    "Pfeffer talks a lot of sense. He provides a kind of alternative MBA in how not to run a business." FT July 17 2007.

    The book provides 28 concise chapters full of insights/examples that question conventional wisdom. Each chapter encourages you to think in a more challenging way about a wide range of key topics - from people management and leadership to performance measurement and competitive strategy. The objective is to help you make the best possible decision for your organization. This is achieved in 80-90% of the material, in some areas this is not the case and the coverage is rather lightweight, hence four stars.

    The content is based on a monthly columnn in the 'What works' section of a Business magazine, starting in 2003. The coverage was wide ranging but mostly focused on common mistakes that Pfeffer had seen in how companies manage their people and their business, and also how to do things better. The book was written to substantially expand this on this foundation, creating the opportunity to provide more examples and content, developing on 'Why it Works' - the underlying reasoning/analysis.

    Pfeffer advocates a simple questioning approach, which I feel has a lot of strengths, that decision makers can follow:

    1. What is the question or problem?

    2. What are the possible solutions?

    3. What is the best one, and how do we know that?

    4. What must we do know?

    Overall the book explains why executives make common mistakes and how these can be avoided. It certainly makes you consider things from a fresh viewpoint. Other authors and consultants do cover this ground to some extent, but not as widely as this book.

    Stan Felstead - Interchange Resources - UK.
    Comment | 
    Was this review helpful to you?
    Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
    Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  16 reviews
    39 of 43 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars The true one minute manager -- a resource for every manager and executive 20 July 2007
    By Mark P. McDonald - Published on Amazon.com
    Format:Hardcover
    Jeffery Pfeffer takes the material in is recurring column in Business 2.0 and expands them into short vignettes on management and leadership topics. Normally, this approach does not work as either the book becomes a trite reiteration of previous material or the ideas that were good for a column are not robust enough for treatment in a book. Pfeffer does a superb job avoiding both as each chapter/thought is concise fully developed and warrants a couple of page treatment. A summary of each section and chapter highlights is at the end of this review. This book has the consideration and wisdom to be the true direct support managers need for managing their people, business plans, and ad hoc situations.

    Pfeffer's focused and comprehensive treatment provides wisdom that every manager should have access to and frequently reference. I would suggest that executives and managers use this book as a cost effective tool for management development by followng three steps:

    First, I would have every manager read the book now.

    Second I would make it part of your planning process by requiring managers to re-read the book prior to doing their plans and budgets for 2008.

    Finally, I would make sure the book is used in executive and corporate governance processes when many of the suboptimal decisions Pfeffer discusses get made. In that way executives will be informed and make a business decision rather than one that 'makes the numbers work'.

    The book is good, but there are a few weak spots. Pfeffer is a world renowned organizational design and Human Capital expert and this shows in the book. The book can be a little people heavy to the exclusion of other considerations such as strategic, market, financial etc. Pfeffer raises issues of corporatepolicy issues that are often outside the power of individual managers to change. Pfeffer addresses this issue in Chapter 20 - No more excuses so I would recommend reading chapter 20 first or at least right after the first section of the book.

    Overall the book contains wisdom that every manager needs because so often we become `autistic' in business, by that I mean that we look at employees as things rather than people. This book is valuable to every manager and executive and will them keep things in balance and be a better manager.

    The book is divided into the following parts and I have highlighted a few of the best chapters.

    Part One People-Centered Strategies concentrates on issues related to insights into how the organization works with its people. Specific topics include:

    Chapter 2 People as the face of your business -- a clear statement of the obvious but overlooked truth that people are central to the business

    Chapter 3 Making companies work like communities provides human view on the issue of culture, not as an abstract concept but as the human interactions inside the company that make it tick

    Chapter 5 How companies get smarter through taking chances and making mistakes providing a definition of the power of a fault-tolerant company. It reminds me that the most valuable employee is the one who has just learned from a mistake

    Part Two Creating Effective Workplace provides a practicable advice on how to manage core workplace issues.

    Chapter 8 Let workers work -- discusses the real but not recognized corporate impact of the trend to have employee directed benefits and programs.

    Chapter 9 Why Spy on Your Employees addresses the challenging issue of monitoring employee work activities in an interconnected world.

    Chapter 10 All work and no play is of particular interest as it highlights the difference between activities (I work long and hard) and results. Too many people confuse the two to the detriment of the company and themselves.

    Chapter 13 Resumes don't tell covers the issue of talent selection and the information you need to get the best people.

    Part Three Power Plays discusses the role of the senior executive and paths to gaining that role.

    Chapter 14 The Courage to Rise Above is perhaps the most important chapter in the book for the individual manager as it contains some hard to hear, but must be heard advice on developing and advancing your career and the career of others. The wisdom in this section is tough but very valuable.

    Chapter 15 Executive in Chief highlights the importance and power of leading through a process of framing, measurement and communication that everyone can use. Some leaders lead by force of will, this is a process for leading that creates leadership capability rather than demands political capital.

    Chapter 20 No excuses discusses the prevalent topic of executives and managers concentrating on how things will not work, rather than how they could work. This chapter works well with the earlier chapter on persistent. No Excuses should be mandatory reading and review whenever someone says that "we can't" or we can when pigs become aerodynamically sound.

    Part Four Measures of Success discusses issues of measurement and performance management. The chapters here are pretty self explanatory, solid and include

    Chapter 23 Dare to be different - discussion of the evils of benchmarking

    Chapter 25 Don't' believe the hype about strategy - something every manager and executive who has written a check for consultants to ghost write their strategy should read.

    Part Five Facing the Nation discuses the policy implications of management and human performance issues. This section addresses issues regarding unions, executive pay and corporate responsibility.
    19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars Thought-Provoking Pragmatism 7 Aug 2007
    By Robert Morris - Published on Amazon.com
    Format:Hardcover
    According to Jeffrey Pfeffer, there seem to be three themes that unify many of the ideas he shares in this volume: "(1) the importance of considering feedback effects - the ideas that actions often have unintended consequences; (2) the nave, overly simplistic, almost mechanical models of people and organizations that seem to dominant both discourse and practice; and (3) the tendency to overcomplicate what are often reasonably straightforward choices and insights." Pfeffer provides an abundance of examples of these and other especially common errors of comprehension and, worse yet, errors of judgment.

    "The message...is that we ought to think before we act, taking into full account feedback effects and using the insights of not only the large body of evidence on behavior but our own common sense and observations. It turns out both common sense and careful thought are in short supply. But that means there are great opportunities for those people and organizations willing to spend the effort to get beyond conventional management wisdom."

    In one of his previous books (Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense), Pfeffer and his co-author, Robert I. Sutton, examine what they call "the doing-knowing gap": doing without knowing, or at least without knowing enough. "People kept telling us about the wonderful things they were doing to implement knowledge - but those things clashed with, and at times were the opposite of, what we knew about organizations and people. Upon probing, we soon discovered that many managers had been prompted by a seminar, book, or consultants to do things that were at odds with the best evidence about what works." Pfeffer and Sutton identify some of the barriers to what they call "evidence-based management" and recommend specific steps that leaders can take to overcome those barriers.

    Whenever I read one of Pfeffer's books, I am reminded of Ernest Hemingway's observation that every great writer has "a built-in, shock-proof crap detector." For years, Pfeffer has challenged conventional management wisdom that is not supported by sufficient evidence. Consider this composite quotation from Chapter 25, "Don't Believe the Hype About Strategy," throughout which Pfeffer explains what is wrong with strategy as it has come to be known and defined:

    "First of all, there is often much too much emphasis on the quality of the presentation and the pitch rather than the quality and business acumen of the ideas...Second, there is often a lot of emphasis on talk - on sounding smart - in the strategy formulation process and a lot of time sitting around thinking and planning instead of going out and trying some stuff, seeing what works, and learning by doing...[Despite] all the emphasis on strategy at the board and senior executive level, there is precious little evidence that it really is a source of success. The research on the effects of strategic planning generally finds it has no effect on corporate performance...[In fact] most successful strategies are simple...What is extremely difficult to copy - and what therefore does provide competitive advantage - is the way a company implements and executes its strategy...The other problem with today's overemphasis on strategy is the tendency to build in various forms of rigidity. Strategy, after all, is designed to tell a company not only what to do but what not to do - what customers and products and industry segments to avoid, either because they don't play to the company's strengths or aren't economically attractive. Or some combination of the two...[Therefore] develop your strategy adaptively, by using your company's best thinking at the time, learning from experience, and then trying again, using what you have learned. Building an experimenting, mistake-forgiving, adaptive culture provides a competitive advantage that lasts, because that sort of environment is much more difficult to copy than some dogmatic strategy. Under almost all circumstances, fast learners are going to outperform even the most brilliant strategists who can't adapt."

    This composite quotation is representative of the thrust and flavor of Pfeffer's analytical and writing skills throughout the entire book as he offers unconventional management wisdom on a full-range of subjects. In addition to his thoughts about what's wrong with strategy, I also appreciated his contrarian opinions about building customer relationships, training expenditures, "taking chances and making mistakes," working long hours, interview objectives and hiring practices, "persistence," compensation incentives and rewards, and organized labor (i.e. unions). Ultimately, Pfeffer insists, decision-makers must follow a remarkably simple process that dates back at least to Aristotle:

    1. What is the question or problem?
    2. What are the possible answers or solutions?
    3. What is the best one and how do we know that?
    4. What must we now do?

    Of course, mistakes are made when making decisions and/or when following through on them but at least it is possible to increase the percentage of correct decisions. I agree with Pfeffer on the importance of considering feedback effects because actions often have unintended consequences. I also share his disdain for "the nave, overly simplistic, almost mechanical models of people and organizations that seem to dominant both discourse and practice." As for overcomplicating what are often reasonably straightforward choices and insights, Albert Einstein offers the best advice: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."
    25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars Challenge your beliefs on management and organization 9 July 2007
    By Coert Visser - Published on Amazon.com
    Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
    Jeffrey Pfeffer is an exceptional management author, who has written twelve great books, among which The Knowing-Doing Gap, Hidden Value, The Human Equation, and Hard Facts. This book, What Were They Thinking, is based on a series of columns Pfeffer wrote for the magazine Business 2.0. In it, he covers a wide range of topics, from people centered management strategies to creating effective workplaces, using power strategies, thinking differently about success, executive pay and corporate ethics. The great thing in all Pfeffers writing is that whatever he says is so well argued and facts-based. If you're familiar with his earlier books, you will surely recognize many of the points he's making in this book. At the same time, however, there is a certain freshness in this book, maybe due to the fact that it is based on columns. Another reason is there are new examples from the corporate world, and there are many new research references. Friend and colleague of Pfeffer, Bob Sutton, has said this about him: "And no matter how strongly you disagree with him, he has this annoying habit of basing his arguments on the best theory and evidence in peer-reviewed academic publications. Plus when he writes about an unstudied topic, his logic is often so compelling that refuting his arguments is extremely difficult." When reading this book (and practically anything else he has written) you'll find it easy to agree with Sutton: it is very hard to disagree with Pfeffer once you follow his reasoning and evidence. Some of the chapters I liked best in this book were: The courage to rise above, Dare to be different, More mister Nice guy, Curbing the Urge to Merge, In praise of organized labor, Stopping corporate misdeeds. A great book. Every student of organizational effectiveness should read it.
    Coert Visser
    8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars Well Worth Chewing On! 14 July 2007
    By Mark C. Howell - Published on Amazon.com
    Format:Hardcover
    In the tradition of Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense and The Knowing-Doing Gap, What Were They Thinking? is a great addition to the Jeffrey Pfeffer collection. Covering five important themes in the corporate world (People Centered Strategies, Creating Effective Workplaces, Leadership and Influence, Organizational Strategy, and Public Policy), Pfeffer gives us plenty to chew on. Since each chapter stands alone, the book can be read in the order of interest or need.

    If you'd rather carefully think through an issue than simply respond based on what you've always done before (or the textbook solution), you'll enjoy the thoughtful approach that you find here. In wrestling through some of the today's most pressing issues, Pfeffer offers the kind of thinking that sets him apart from most other writers in the management genre. Regardless of your arena, this will be a valuable addition to your reading list.
    7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars Road Warrior Points and Family Gifts 29 July 2007
    By John W. Pearson - Published on Amazon.com
    Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
    MTW, a software company serving the insurance industry, pushed employee turnover from 30 percent (standard for their niche) to an amazing four percent. Like many innovative companies that pay attention to their corporate culture, they understand that compensation--alone--is not the big deal in attracting and retaining quality people. For example, MTW awards "Road Warrior" points to their traveling executives and often showers gifts on families of road warriors--thanking them for their sacrifices back home.

    This is just one of dozens of nuggets in Pfeffer's fast-reading book. No wonder Jim Collins describes him as "one of the sparkling gems in the field of management."

    Pfeffer packs a punch in each of his 28 short chapters. He applauds "noisy complainers" who point out errors so the systemic problems will get fixed. He champions IDEO's belief that "failing early and failing often is better than failing once, failing at the end, and failing big." He writes, "The principle is simple--learn and fail on a small scale."

    Pfeffer's chapter on New York's Orpheus Chamber Orchestra will rattle your notion of leadership: there's no leader, nor conductor! And you'll reach for the Maalox when you read that "most people bring only about 20 percent of their talent and energy to their jobs." Buy the book. He has some ideas for all of us.
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