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A Grand Unified Theory of Management?


If you’re a keen student of management, eventually you’ll reach the point of cognitive overload. There are too many theories; they overlap in ways that are unclear; it’s hard to tell the good ones from the poor ones. Might there be a better way? Might we move towards a Grand Unified Theory of Management?

There has been some good work over the years to—if not create a unified theory—at least bring some order to the field. Jeffrey Pfeffer did a wonderful job of categorizing the major academic approaches to management theory in his book New Directions for Organization Theory: Problems and Prospects. For the popular management literature, John Micklethwait wrote The Witch Doctors which helped survey the field as a whole. Another helpful work was Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organizations which showed how management theories are based on different metaphors (e.g. the organization is like a brain or the organization is like a machine) and this helps us understand why two theories can feel totally incompatible, but still both feel right.

The field of I/O psychology might argue that they are creating the foundation for a grand unified theory by carefully accumulating and testing hypotheses. The best-known success in this area is the work that lead to defining the five big factors of personality. It’s easy to imagine hundreds or thousands of different aspects of personality, but research has shown that to a large extent they can be boiled down to five factors. You don’t need to learn every consultant’s theory of personality, you can stick with the proven results around the big five traits.

This is all good work, but it remains true that the burden of making sense of all the theories, good and bad, still outstretches human abilities.

How we might reach a Grand Unified Theory

What might a grand unified theory of management look like in practice? Well, it wouldn’t be neat and tidy, but if it’s any consolation even mathematics isn’t neat and tidy. Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell tried to tidy up math with their three volume Principia Mathematica and learned (courtesy of Kurt Gödel) that wasn’t entirely possible.

However, we can imagine going online to search for “coaching” and find an authoritative list of a manageable number of proven approaches. One could also imagine presenting a management problem like “transformation” to some kind of smart system that would guide you on how to look at the problem from the perspective of four or five of the most relevant theories.

To get there we’d need something like a Wikipedia of Management Knowledge where editors would ruthlessly cull out redundant and ineffective theories. Some of the foundations for this are being set by groups like the Centre for Evidence-based Management and ScienceForWork which scour and condense the academic literature so that professionals can get a manageable grasp of the best available evidence on various topics.

What’s more exciting is the vision of a system (and we can’t avoid saying “some kind of AI”) that will take your problem and suggest the management theory most relevant to dealing with it. This AI would need the “Wikipedia of Management Knowledge” first, but once we had that data, it’s easy to imagine people inventing intelligent tools to help us navigate through it.

Risks and your role

The risk of a grand unified theory is that it may become a rigid dogma that is slow to innovate and poor at handling unusual cases. There may also be value in the continual reinvention or rephrasing of theories just to keep them fresh, even if they are not strictly speaking any better than the old ones. Certainly, in literature we refresh the field by writing new stories even though one could argue that all the good stories have already been told. I’m not worried about the risks, we are so far away from a stifling unified theory, and so deep in the overload of too many weak theories, that we could impose a good deal of order without doing any harm.

Your role, as a professional, is to study the literature and see whether newly presented models are really any better or any different than the best ones that are already well-established. We need to increase the degree of rigour we demand, and we can do this because it’s getting ever easier to find out about theories and the evidence to back those theories on the internet. If it’s a big project, engage the Centre for Evidence-based Management to review the quality of the proposed methodology before you proceed.

In today’s world, we have Amazon that can provide most of the products you need and provide good insights about the quality of those products. Maybe an Amazon of management theory will be how a Grand Unified Theory manifests itself in practice. Instead of being faced with something like the daunting Principia Mathematica, using the unified theory will be more like a great shopping experience.


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