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Debunking business pseudo-science
on 6 July 2007
I just finished reading Phil Rosenzweig's book "The Halo Effect...and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers". This book takes aim at the general run of business books and, in particular, their tendency to dress up vivid stories as scientific study. Phil does not seem to have anything against stories per se, nor does he disagree with some of the advice given in the books. What he takes issue with is the focus on a single, definitive "scientific" set of recommendations when there is no real scientific rigor behind them.
He lays out 9 specific delusions and shows how they distort the advice in management books:
- The Halo Effect - tending of analysis of a company to reflect only the overall results
- The Delusion of Correlation and Causality - the lack of proof of causality in many situations
- The Delusion of Single Explanations - one factor is unlikely to be the reason for success or failure
- The Delusion of Connecting the Winning Dots - problems with only considering "winners"
- The Delusion of Rigorous Research - mistaking large volumes of data for good data
- The Delusion of Lasting Success - most companies trend to the mean eventually
- The Delusion of Absolute Performance - companies can do well and still fail if a competitor does better
- The Delusion of the Wrong End of the Stick - successful companies may do various things but that does not mean that doing those things will make you successful
- The Delusion of Organizational Physics - business organizations are just not that predictable
Phil uses various stories to show how the perception of companies and leaders changes when the company's performance does. He also shows how the vivid but unscientific stories that arise from this are then used as evidence by later studies. He repeatedly makes the point that the business world is not a laboratory but a messy and complex world and that this limits our ability to do analysis. He shows that rather than a specific behavior leading to strong company performance, the behavior is at least as likely to be caused by strong company performance. He likens this to Cargo Cults who hope to get planes full of goods to return by recreating the look of a jungle airstrip, mistaking cause and effect.
The overall effect is to make you take most management books with a large pinch of salt - not ignoring them, but recognizing that they are just stories, not science.