Gary Hamel and innovations in management

The Future of Management, Hamel, Gary


Gary Hamel has been an astute observer of organizations and management for several decades now. For all the reasons that seemed to make sense at the time, this book sat on my shelf for a while before I got to it. Based on the current state of the economy, I suspect a number of executives who could have benefitted from Hamel’s insights also failed to get them in a timely fashion. Hamel’s central thesis is that management is a mature technology and is ripe for disruptive innovation. Although he makes only passing reference to Clay Christensen’s work, there are important points of linkage between these two management thinkers.

The underlying rationale behind management philosophy and practices was largely laid down in the early decades of the twentieth century during the growth and ascendancy of the large multi-divisional industrial organization. In other words, most managers continue to operate with the mindset and practices originally developed to handle the problems encountered by the railroads, GM, IBM, and the other organizations making up the Dow Jones average between 1930 and 1960. While we’ve experienced multiple innovations in products, technologies, services, and strategies, the basics of management have changed little. Here’s how Hamel puts it:

While a suddenly resurrected 1960s-era CEO would undoubtedly be amazed by the flexibility of today’s real-time supply chains, and the ability to provide 24/7 customer service, he or she would find a great many of today’s management rituals little changed from those that governed corporate life a generation or two ago. Hierarchies may have gotten flatter, but they haven’t disappeared. Frontline employees may be smarter and better trained, but they’re still expected to line up obediently behind executive decisions. Lower-level managers are still appointed by more senior managers. Strategy still gets set at the top. And the big calls are still made by people with big titles and even bigger salaries. there may be fewer middle managers on the payroll, but those that remain are doing what managers have always done–setting budgets, assigning tasks, reviewing performance, and cajoling their subordinates to do better. (p. 4)

Hamel sets out to explore what innovation in the practice of management would look like and how organizations and managers might tackle the problems of developing and deploying those innovations. I don’t think he gets all the way there, but the effort is worth following.

The first section of the book lays out the case for management innovation as compared to other forms. the second examines three organizations that Hamel considers worthy exemplars: Whole Foods, W.L. Gore, and Google. The last two section build a framework for how you might start doing managerial innovation within your own organization.

Hamel does a good job of extracting useful insights from the case examples he presents. Hamel’s own preference is for a managerial future that is less hierarchical and less mechanical. At the same time, he wants each of us to commit to doing managerial innovation for ourselves. This leaves him in a bit of a bind. I suspect that Hamel would like to be more prescriptive, but his position forces him to leave the prescription as an exercise for the reader. While I agree with Hamel that both individuals and organizations need to be formulating their own theories of management and experimenting on their own, this is not likely to happen in most organizations and particularly so in the current economic climate. Necessity is not the mother of invention; rather it forces us to cling to the safe and familiar. We need a degree of safety and a degree of slack to do the kinds of thinking and experimenting that will produce meaningful managerial innovations. I fear that may be hard to come by in the current environment; no matter how relevant or necessary.

What you can do in the interim is research and reflection to discover or define opportunities for possible managerial innovations. This book is one excellent starting point, but insufficient on its own.

Is this an agenda worth pursuing? What else would you recommend to move forward?

One thought on “Gary Hamel and innovations in management”

  1. “formulating their own theories of management and experimenting on their own”

    I could pin a number of challenges here, but in the end the most significant is that this is the antithesis of the prevalent cultures…cultures where minimizing risk suggests that only ‘proven’ principles and practices should be adopted, only how can anything be proven in constantly changing environments.

    It’s all SO broken…and so full of untapped potential.

Comments are closed.