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on 10 November 2009
I was introduced to Jeffrey Pfeffer's work at a management course in 2008. Thereafter, I read and reviewed his book, Managing with Power, and was impressed by his analysis of power in organisations. It was with this in mind that I bought Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense. My my! I was not disappointed.

We have all heard the phrases, "war for talent", "keep work separate from life", "getting financial incentives right", "strategy is destiny", and "we need more leadership". We often latch on to these snippets of conventional wisdom, translating them into organisational policy, yet seldom stop to question the assumptions behind conventional wisdom.

In this brilliant book, authors, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, remind us to practice evidence-based management. They show how surprisingly many management decisions are driven by the ideology and charisma of managers, and not necessarily by the evidence. They tackle some `conventional wisdoms' of the management literature. I'll rehash some of the more important of these `wisdoms' here:


The business press and our contemporary culture are obsessed with leadership; therefore, we lionise corporate leaders like Jack Welch and Lee Iacocca. Pfeffer and Sutton emphasise that leaders do make a difference. Indeed, some of the defining social changes of the last century may not have occurred without the leadership of people like Gandhi, Martin Luther-King and Mother Theresa.

While leadership matters (as a Nigerian, I have seen my fair share of questionable political leaders), Pfeffer and Sutton suggest that the myth of leadership is a half-truth, especially in large organisations. Citing research on human psychology, they (Pfeffer and Sutton) put it down to human nature: "when we look at organisations, we see people who are in charge; we don't see the constraints that affect their behaviour and company performance". We tend to attribute to much blame for mistake--and credit for success--to leader. One GE executive interviewed in the book joked, "Jack [Welch] did a good job, but everyone seems to forget that the company has been around for over 100 years...and he had 70,000 other people to help him".


Citing recent research, the authors show that financial incentives are used to drive performance because individuals believe that other are motivated by money, even as they (the individuals) know that they are much less so. Often, financial incentives are overused and tend to attract the wrong kind of talent: people only interested in making a buck. Pfeffer and Sutton show that there are cases in which financial incentives work well: where work is mostly done by single individuals, who do not work in interdependent settings. Once people work in large interdependent settings, then financial incentives alone are not the key drivers of company performance (see for example, Amazon, SouthWest Airlines and CostCo).


Business schools, governments, the military and corporations are fixated on strategy (defined as what the organisation does based on its competences and where it can add value). The authors question the logic and evidence for why conventional wisdom states that strategy is destiny.

Using examples of successful companies like Dell, Intel and Amazon, the authors show that these companies did not succeed by having proprietary (secret) strategies; if anything, their strategies were public knowledge. Dell's strategy, for example, was to bypass the wholesalers and sell directly to the consumer using just-in-time inventories. Even though Dell's competitors knew this strategy, they could not replicate Dell's success. What made the difference then? The authors stress that implementation of Dell's strategy was the key to delivering the goods. No, strategy is not destiny. While a company will benefit from good strategic planning (what business to be in and how to compete with other firms), it will almost certainly benefit from the less glamorous details of implementation (keeping it simple, learning as you do etc).

In the words of John Maxwell, conventional wisdom is borne of "lazy thinking". Pfeffer and Sutton's Hard Facts is a reminder to challenge this lazy thinking and to practice evidence-based management, a commitment to using the facts--and only the facts--to inform the management of organisations. This means that management should be based on the best available evidence of what works in a given organisational setting. Pfeffer and Sutton make their case with clarity, wit, healthy skepticism and conviction. It is a message that every senior executive should hear. Pfeffer and Sutton's Hard Facts deserve five glittering stars.
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on 19 June 2016
Clarity that more people need
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on 14 December 2010
The big letters in the book's title are "HARD FACTS". Therefore I was a disappointed that it contained next to no hard facts. Just sketchy cases but no deep studies of companies or industries. Endless black pages with words, words, and more words but no tables, figures, or other comprehensive fact representations. Lots of besserwissen in hindsight but no critical, but solid generalizations. I did expect something along the lines of evidence-based HR, but did not find it.

The book resembles tape-recordings of spoken lectures. Superficial cases and knowing in hindsight might impress naive students but to more senior people - eg. managers or consultants searching for evidence about management - it is of no use.
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on 24 July 2006
Ever since I read his book "Competitive Advantage through People" I have bought every book Jeffrey Pfeffer has (co-)written. And I have never been disappointed. All his books both are consistent with and build on his previous work and add new and interesting angles. When this new book by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton was advertized I had a slight worry about its title. It sounds so decisive and self-assured .... I worried whether it wouldn't be too pretentious. Management surely is not only a matter of applying knowledge! It is also dealing with uncertainty, improvisation, choices etc....

But after reading the book, I can (again) say that it is fantastic. It fully acknowledges 'the other half of management' (the parts where you can not yet rely on proven knowledge).

The authors pose some brilliant questions like: is work fundamentally different from the rest of life and should it be? Do the best organizations have the best people? Do financial incentives drive company performance? Is strategy destiny? Is the reality of organizations nowadays "change or die"? Are great leaders in control of their companies?

Do you think you know the answers to these questions? And if you do, do you know what these answers imply for you actions as a manager? I bet you will learn a lot by reading what Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton have to say about these things (like I did).

This book is jammed with intruiging thoughts, packed with practical wisdom and a true inspirational read!

Coert Visser
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on 21 October 2010
Pfeffer and Sutton's book on evidence-based management is an excellent introduction to the how and why of taking this approach to decisions. It explains in a clear and engaging way why gut feel, intuition and rules of thumb can trick smart, experienced people into making poor decisions. It provides copious notes for anyone wanting to follow up on the original research. The book begins and ends with this how and why in broad terms, and has six case studies in the middle chapters demonstrating their approach.

One small disappointment I had with this book was that several of the case studies were frankly tearing down ideas that almost no one believes any longer anyway. For example, is strategy destiny? The whole strategic planning movement was discredited long ago. Nevertheless, the news that strategy is not destiny does not need to be news to you for this to be of value. It's worth rehearsing the reasons why it has been discredited, and it is yet another example of why the evidence-based approach is important for success.

Some of the material is more cutting edge - for example the last case study, on whether leaders are in control, touches very slightly on some of the more recent thinking on leadership by people like Goleman (though they don't quote him - but the territory they cover is similar).

To my mind, though, the case studies are simply demonstrations. The importance of Sutton and Pfeffers' work is the theory, which can then be applied in any arena. This is not a workbook - as others have commented, there is no detail about precisely how one goes about producing evidence-based thinking. Instead, they offer general guidance about things that must somehow be done - for example being curious, keeping yourself open to new ideas and challenges to existing thinking. They also point to symptoms that can tell you whether an organisation works in this way, such as what happens when people fail. The reader is, by and large, left to then figure out the pragmatic steps for their situation.

I would definitely recommend this book to any manager or leader - indeed to anyone who has the power to make decisions. In some ways this is a "basics" book - but given how prevalent non evidence-based decision-making is these days, it's a very useful reminder that however attractive management fads and "trust your gut" advice may be, the hard work of thinking well is what pays off in the longer term.
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on 13 December 2009
I recently had the opportunity to read
The Halo Effect: .and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the Halo Effect and was hoping for something similar from this book. Overall, I was not dissapointed, and I think both books succeeds at exploring a very important topic.

The best part of the book is section II, in which different half-truths are addressed, such as whether financial incentives drive performance, whether companies change or die, whether strategy is destiny etc. This is in my opinion, the real meat of the book, and the answers are often rather subtle.

I did however find some parts of the book a bit flawed. Throughout the book, the authors encourage us to think critically about management, and to be wary of using anecdotes and casestories as sources of management "truths". But in it's more prescriptive parts, the books gives some bland and generic advice, which did not seem like hard facts to me.

So I end up giving the book four stars for the middle section, and for it's treatment of a vitally important topic. But I was very close to only giving it three stars.
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on 28 July 2006
Jeffrey Pfeffer is Professor of Organizational Behavior and Robert I. Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. They are the author of business bestseller `The Knowing-Doing Gap' (2000). This book was published in 2006 and consists of 9 chapters.

In the preface the authors explain the result of their exercise: "[This book] is a call for evidence-based management, a case for its potential impact, and a guide on how to use it." They also immediately warn readers: "There are no simple, easy answers, but there are answers." Part I - Setting the Stage - consists of two chapters, whereby the first chapter serves as an introduction into evidence-based management. "Evidence-based management proceeds from the premise that using better, deeper logic and employing facts to the extent possible permits leaders to do their jobs better." And although most managers try to act on the best evidence there is little rigorous use or serious appreciation of evidence-based management. In the second chapter the authors consider key impediments to implementing evidence-based management and how to overcome them. They also offer guidelines and ways of thinking to help organizations turn these ideas into action.

The main body of the book is contained within Part II - Dangerous Half-Truths About Managing People and Organizations - and consists of six chapters. Chapter 2 shows simple but powerful standards for judging which advice and practices advocated in the vast marketplace for business ideas are sound, which are suspect, and which are total nonsense. This is followed by an examination of perhaps the most basic half-truth - "work is fundamentally different from the rest of life and should be." This half-truth is fundamental because so much else follows from it. The organizational practices are quite different than we observe - or at least aspire to - in our personal life. Chapter 4 discusses the half-truth that "the best organizations have the best people", which was embraced during the dot-com boom and still lives on in the "war for talent" imagery. The next chapter examines one of the most deeply held half-truths in the business world, that "financial incentives drive company performance." However the authors' best evidence shows that using them to solve many problems leads organizations to stray from their goals and undermines performance.

The remaining three half-truths move up to the organizational level of analysis, focusing on the challenges of managing the enterprise. For instance, chapter 6 questions whether and when "strategy is destiny". Peffer and Sutton make an evidence-based case that excessive faith in strategic decision making is hazardous to an organization's health. This is followed by an examination of the faulty evidence and logic behind the mantra "change or die". The final chapter of this part considers what leaders are expected to do versus what they actually can and should do. The authors focus on these half-truths because they believe that "leaders who understand why each belief is flawed, and who think hard about the evidence for and against each, can develop more effective and sophisticated approaches to running their organizations."

In the final chapter the authors explain that managers can find and use evidence so their companies can avoid such dreadful journeys. They identify and discuss 9 implementation principles to help people and organizations to commit themselves to profit from evidence-based management. None of these principles will surprise anyone and most are in fact predictable. However, most of us do not always stick to them for a variety of reasons. "The question remains: Who will have the courage and wisdom to do it?"

Yes, I do like this book. Although it does not fundamentally bring any new principles to table, it will help most of us re-focus onto the extremely important task of managing based on evidence, data and facts. Pfeffer and Sutton effectively break down dangerous half-truths and make a compelling case for finding and using evidence to succeed not just in management/business but also in the rest of life. Just one criticism, there could be some more details on methods for gathering data and translating this into evidence.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 13 July 2006
In my opinion, the most valuable business books are those which pose and then respond to an especially important question. For example, before Pfeffer and Sutton wrote their previously published book, The Knowing Doing-Gap, they asked: Why is it that managers who know so much about organizational performance, say so many smart things about how to achieve performance, and work so hard are nonetheless trapped in firms that do so many things they know will undermine performance? Their research indicated that a substantial majority of the executives they studied demonstrated a significant gap: They knew what to do and how to do it but seldom took effective action based on that knowledge.

In this book, Pfeffer and 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. Of special interest to me is what they have to say about "half-truths that bedevil organizations."

These are among the specific questions to which Pfeffer and Sutton respond and they do so brilliantly:

1. What exactly is "evidence-based management"?

2. Evidence of what? And how to verify it?

3. Why do all organizations need evidence-based management?

4. What are the most damaging half-truths about managing people and organizations?

5. When attempting to implement evidence-based management, what are the most formidable barriers to overcome?

6. How best to overcome each?

7. Which incentives are most important to individual performance?

8. To organizational performance?

9. What are the most valuable potential benefits of evidence-based management?

10. Which specific principles can guide and inform the collaborative efforts of those who are committed to doing whatever it takes to achieve such benefits?

As I read this book, I thought about what Pfeffer and Sutton had said about "the knowing-doing gap" in their previous book bearing that title. Whereas that gap indicated that people could possess sufficient skills and knowledge but are unable to take effective action, "the doing-knowing gap" suggests problems of a quite different nature. Perhaps Pfeffer and Sutton share my own concern that many of those who read their book will then exclaim "Aha! That's it! Now I understand!" In fact, some of them will "get it" but most won't...at least not immediately. I agree with Pfeffer and Sutton's suggestion that each organization be viewed as an "unfinished prototype." Readers would be well-advised to consider Pfeffer and Sutton's ideas with the same perspective.

In my opinion, hard facts are not enough. They must also be the right facts and there must be enough of them. Although I fully appreciate the importance of faith, trust, hope, empathy, and decency, the fact remains that what cannot be verified cannot be managed.

What about half-truths? I suggest that they be treated like cockroaches: Turn on bright lights and refuse to let them hide or escape. One of my favorite techniques, "fishboning," involves saying "Why?" to each response until neither you nor anyone else can bear to continue. When subjected to such rigorous scrutiny, half-truths don't have a chance. Fishboning worked well for Socrates and it will also work well for us.

With regard to "total nonsense," it is amazing how durable it can be. The fact remains that some people are convinced that wet highways cause rain...and that's that. For whatever reasons, it is very important to them to cling to such beliefs despite all evidence to the contrary. It seems a fool's errand to waste time and energy trying to convince them of the merits of evidence-based management...or of anything else.

One final point: What Pfeffer and Sutton recommend can - and should - be implemented at all levels throughout any organization, regardless of size or nature. The leadership which evidence-based management requires has nothing to do with title or tenure but everything to do with being resourceful, empirical, and pragmatic, skeptical and suspicious but not cynical or manipulative. And the initiatives to achieve and then sustain effective evidence-based management must be collaborative and continuous .

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out Pfeffer and Sutton's earlier book, The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action as well as Robert Mittelstaedt's Will Your Next Mistake Be Fatal: Avoiding the Chain of Mistakes Which Can Destroy Your Company, Michael Levine's Broken Windows, Broken Business: How the Smallest Remedies Reap the Biggest Rewards, George S. Day and Paul J.H. Schoemaker's Periferal Vision: Detecting the Weak Signals That Will Make or Break Your Company, and Sydney Finkelstein's Why Smart Executives Fail and What You Can Learn from Their Mistakes.
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on 21 February 2007
In my opinion this is the best management book ever. Then the book is all about facts and how to avoid running business' based on opinions. Before hiring a new manager or before you as a manager deals with any new problem this book is a must read.

This book thoroughly deals with years of management incompetence in major companies. The books shows how fact based management provides superior business results over the more widely used opinion based management. This could be called "The American Management Sickness" as most of the executives used as (scary) examples are from major US based companies. The authors dissect how US based companies for years have been run by the opinions of the charismatic leader's in contrast to using more fact based methods.

Typically I highlight a few sentences in each chapter that summarized the new knowledge I gain. My copy of this book is almost highlighted from start to finish. The value and insight provided by this book is overwhelming. I would like to give this book six stars. It is truly outstanding and is head and shoulders above the majority of published business books.
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on 14 April 2006
Fans of 'The Knowing-Doing Gap' will know Robert and Jeffrey's no-nonsense style, and this doesn't disappoint, taking on the flawed logic and execution that can turn highly successful companies into also-rans almost overnight.

It's all here - failed mergers, dangerous half-truths and the lack of clear data, backed up by out-of-date management procedures. Robert and Jeffrey propose in their place Evidence Based Management, a simple, but effective approach to avoid the corporate banana skins.

As always, Robert and Jeffrey's books combine clear thinking backed up by sound academic research. They ask some fundamental questions, like "Do Financial Incentives Drive Company Performance?", "Are Great Leaders in Control of Their Companies" and, most chillingly, "Change of Die?"

This book is a must for anyone in a senior decision making role. Highly recommended!
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