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A Little Book of F-laws: 13 Common Sins of Management

by Phil Dourado January 31, 2008
A Little Book of F-laws: 13 Common Sins of Management

There's a link to a free e-book version of this small book at the end of this review, downloadable in pdf format.

For 'little' read 'tiny'; barely 27 pages long and, frankly, just an excerpt from Ackoff's larger book on f-laws (flaws - geddit?)

The format is slightly odd: thirteen of Russell Ackoff, Professor of Management Science at Wharton, and his co-author Herbert Addison's f-laws are lined up on the left hand pages - just a page each, so a nice quick 'grab'. And opposite each of these is a critique from a writer called Sally Bibb.

Bibb's observations do add extra dimensions, nuances and point out the limitations of Ackoff & Addison's sometimes glib f-laws. But, as a structure it's all a bit odd. You read an f-law, smile, and then opposite it is a commentary that says "Ah, yes, but, on the other hand..." . Whether intentionally or not, the approach actually highlights the f-laws' shortcomings, which are considerable.

Having said that, the f-laws are also fun (some of them, anyway). Here are a few:

"Managers who don't know how to measure what they want settle for wanting what hey can measure." (Absolutely. I couldn't agree more. The biggest danger of 'What gets measured gets done' is it's evil twin 'What can't get measured gets ignored').

"The less sure managers are of their opinions, the more vigorously they defend them."

"A bureaucrat is one who has the power to say 'no', but no power to say 'yes'."

"The legibility of a male manager's handwriting is in inverse proportion to his seniority."

"There is nothing that a manager wants done that educated subordinates cannot undo."

What they mean by this last one, the authors go on to explain, is "...the more power-over educated subordinates that managers exercise, the less is their power-to get them to do what they want them to...Power-over is the ablity to reward or punish. Power-to is the ability to induce them to do willingly what the boss wants them to."

I'm with Bibby in adding a 'what's it got to do with education?' note. You can have bright people who know their own minds who aren't that educated.

There's quite a lot of material to make you smile with recognition at common leadership and management flaws in this book, and also quite a lot of questionable assertions that are challengable. And that's no bad thing. As Rousseau or somebody said, the whole of the European Enlightenment of the 18th century can be summed up in three words: "Think for yourself." And the irreverent tone of this book encourages that.

Ackoff is a champion of systems thinking and one of the many things I like about systems thinking (I don't like all of it, but much of it) is its lack of built-in deference to authority and the lack of hierarchical bias that is built into so much leadership theory (in which leaders 'do' things to organizations and people, and the organizations and people are the resources that get moved around).

So, well worth a look. Refreshing, I'd say. (Though others say Ackoff has been recycling the same stuff for ages. I don't think that's fair criticism). 

You can download a free e-book of the Little Book of f-laws on The Ackoff Center blog