Editor’s note: Eric Jackson, the founder of DeepWeave Technology Consulting, has built his career pioneering software solutions to particularly large and difficult problems. He writes a regular column for LTW titled “Going Deep” which is published on Tuesdays.

BLACK MOUNTAIN,The term “scientific management” conjures up images of stopwatches and a view of work and leadership devoid of life and meaning. It seems for most people to represent the idea that management can somehow be reduced to formulas and procedures derived from a “scientific” study of tasks and the workers who do them.

We have long since rejected the more extreme versions of this early twentieth century theory, but a quick review of the history of management fads over the past few decades clearly shows that we are no less vulnerable to the over-enthusiastic claims of the latest method, the latest hope for a formula that we can depend on in an environment of constant change and uncertainty, a new “science” of management and leadership.

We hope in vain for such a “scientific” answer, chiefly because this kind of answer is not in the least scientific. Science is not about hard certainties and rigid formulas and procedures. While such an understanding of science is far too commonly promulgated by our educational system, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the way science is actually done, and even less to do with the ideals of scientific inquiry.

Book learning vs. true science

First, real science is a fairly rough-and-tumble, inefficient business. Far from resembling the wonderfully logical, sanitized versions of scientific progress presented in textbooks, real science happens in fits and starts, with lots of thought and sweat, setbacks and rabbit trails, major failures and minor victories. While the paths that scientists tread are hardly haphazard, they little resemble the orderly progression of discoveries and advances that is often presented after the fact. Scientific progress involves lively debate, heated competition, duplicated efforts, and a great deal of passion.

Which doesn’t sound all that different from the activity of dedicated managers attempting to navigate in a rapidly changing world.

And what about the underlying ideals?

Science is much more than the simplistic hypothesize-test-rehypothesize sequence that many of us were presented in school. The ideals that undergird all good science are about maintaining a spirit of open inquiry, working from and remaining consistent with basic principles, using one’s best understanding to build models and theories of reality, subjecting those models to rigorous criticism and testing, and being willing to discard models and theories when results turn out to be inconsistent with their predictions.

Again, not a bad model for management!

Goals and objectives

Like science, effective and creative management seeks to:

  • Discover and build on the principles and values that underlie business in general, and the individual organization in particular;

  • Maintain a vigilant watch over the day-to-day actions of the company and all its employees to ensure that they are consistent with those values and principles;

  • Construct good models and theories for describing the business and environment based on experience and constant observation;

  • Make these models and theories known within the organization so that they can be discussed and criticized;

  • Always remember the difference between the models and the reality that they attempt to describe;

  • Continually test the models by comparing outcomes to projections and by measuring the extent to which models and reality converge or diverge;

  • Be prepared to discard models that do not work;

  • Encourage the competition of ideas; and

  • Foster an environment that allows healthy skepticism about assumptions and models, encourages questions and challenge as ways of strengthening the company, and reaches out both internally and externally to find new perspectives, remembering that today’s understanding may well be tomorrow’s outmoded thinking.
  • Difficult, to be sure, but a far cry from the dry and lifeless image normally associated with the idea of scientific management. These are ideals worth striving for in business.

    Eric Jackson is the founder of DeepWeave. He has built his career pioneering software solutions to particularly large and difficult problems. In 2000, Eric co-founded Ibrix, Inc. He is the inventor of the Ibrix distributed file system, a parallel file storage system able to scale in size and performance to millions of terabytes.

    DeepWeave: www.deepweave.com