In looking to the future it is surely relevant to consider what has not worked in the past. We should be aware of the research and the  many many excellent initiatives over the past decades which have not secured a significant change to our management practice. Exploring this issue, Gordon Hall wrote this article What has not worked in the Past

So what are the barriers to our progress? The purpose of this page is to explore these barrier with an expectation that we will in time be able to determine a strategy for a way forward.


The Barrier to progress is in how we think.  How we, our organisations and society, think. (This theme is further explored  in the file “The Importance of Knowledge”.)

What you see depends upon what you thought before you looked. – Myron Tribus

Below we list some characteristics of our thinking that may be the source of the barriers to our progress. Please add other considerations as you think appropriate.

Managing by Measurable figures alone

This is a major problem with a broad range of organisations:

  • The education system is dominated by “qualifications”.
  • The Oil Industry has the phrase “What gets measured gets managed”!
  • The public sector is bedeviled by “Targets”.
  • And the widespread misconception – “if you cannot measure it you cannot control it”.
  • Auditing against Standards – which leads to the tick box mentality.
  • The dominace of accounting figures.

In fact, we can only measure a very small amount of the whole.  W Edwards Deming considered:

“3% of problems have figures, 97% of problems do not.”

To which he added a deadly disease of “Running a company on visible figures alone (counting the money)”.

Senior Executives have a tendency to remain in their ivory towers and demand that they be fed data.  They then manage the enterprise from the figures that represent only 3% of the whole.

In Johnson and Broms book – “Profit beyond Measure” they recognised that Toyota and Scania, manage their organisations by listening to the people and studying the flow of work.  They do collect and interpret data, but they keep it in context.

We thinking that we can motivate people

We have a whole range of techniques to motivate people;

  • Incentives – bonuses, commission etc.
  • We set targets and budgets.
  • We use the concept of competition.
  • We use measurement – qualifications for example.
  • etc

Yet when we observe individuals we see that the majority like work, it is a need. They also love learning.  Most of us come to work wanting to do a good job.  We are self motivated.  As Douglas McGregor once said “The answer to the question – How do you motivate people? – is – You don’t”.

In fact research has shown (see the work of Alfie Kohn and Daniel Pink) that the use of techniques to motivate actually have a negative effect, they reduce our motivation (see The Importance of Knowledge).

We are “Risk Averse”

A dangerous strategy is “no change” – just ask the Dodo.  The surest way to get left behind is to avoid change.

Yet many of our organisations, especially our larger organisations, are “risk averse.” Is it because of the misconception of accountability?  Is it because we make so much more of mistakes that we do of success?  Is it because organisations – especially in the public sector – look for a “safe pair of hands”?  Is it because the media take such delight in bad news stories?

What is certain is that the only way to learn is through disciplined experiments, often referred to as “Scientific Method”.  We form a hypothesis, conduct experiments and then review our hypothesis in light of the results from our experiments – and so on.

In all areas of our society we will move forward by welcoming disciplined experiments.  Some will succeed and some will fail.  It is from this experimentation that we will learn.

Managing a complex system as if it is a simple system

Our basic education teaches us to break down difficult problems into parts and study the parts.  With organisations we break down the enterprise into manageable departments or functions, purchasing, stores, production, sales, accounting, etc..

But what is now widely recognised today is that organisations are made up of the parts plus the interaction between the parts.  It is these complex interrelationships between the parts and functions that required to be managed – the term used is “Whole Systems Thinking”.

And on the same theme we have a tendency to manage organisations as if they are simply controllable entities.  We identify a part (or function) and control it by setting budgets and targets.  In fact we live and work in complex interactive and live systems.  There is seldom a simple answer.  Often we are required to balance conflicting requirements.  There is no option but to engage with the complexity.


We have the simple perception that we can make an individual accountable.  In fact we live and work in complex systems.  These systems may have been designed by others or simply evolved over the years.  The predominate factor (90%) in achieving outcomes is the design of the system in which people are working.  The diligence and competence of the individual accounts, at best, for 10% of the outcome.

“Hold everybody accountable? – Ridiculous!”: quote from W Edwards Deming

Resistance to Change

We are uncomfortable with change for many reasons, as the saying goes, we do not mind change but we object to “being” changed.

Also most of us have considerable investment in the status quo – we have secured our present position through adapting our behaviour to the existing paradigms of our organisation or society.  Change often asks that we abandon all that investment and start again.

Short Termism

Everything seems to be short term, yet transforming society or even an organisation is a long term challenge.  In the research conducted by Porras and Collins and recorded in their book “Built to Last”, one of the criteria for success was a long term perspective.  Change and progress requires long term stability.

How the stock exchange is managed is a major driver of short term thinking.

We have no concept of Management Theory

Our managers have never been taught “theory”.  We would be horrified if our doctors had no appreciation of the theories behind their medical practice, similarly with our engineers.  We would be rightly concerned if an aeroplane designer had no appreciation of the theories that lie behind the concept of an aerofoil and lift.  Yet we readily accept leaders or managers who have no appreciation of the underpinning assumptions that determine their organisational thinking.  This has to change.

Management is the application of scientific knowledge gained from research in the social sciences.  It is a cop out to say management is an art.

Furthermore, without an appreciation of the theories we are using we have no basis from which to challenge that theory.  In other words we have no basis for learning and improving.

Also with no appreciation of theory we fail to see the underpinning thinking behind innovative projects.  We judge these innovative projects from the mindset of the establishment, and therefore miss the crucial point that it is achieving different, more beneficial outcomes, by thinking differently.

Copying without the discipline of Theory

We have a tendency to see success and then attempt to emulate success by copying the methods only, in other words without appreciating the underlying thinking behind the success.  For example:

  • The Quality standard ISO 9001 is a “systems” tool.  Yet most organisations apply the standard using traditional “command and control” principles.  The result is that the written procedures are bureaucratic and demand compliance.  They represent the written instructions from top management to the workers.  But the purpose of the standard was to look at the effectiveness of the whole system and facilitate involving all employees in the search for continuous improvement.
  • Six Sigma is a very popular set of methods developed from observing what was being used in Japan.  However the movement failed to copy the underlying “flow” thinking of the Pacific basin .  Six Sigma therefore has the need for each project to have measurable and positive outcomes.  It portrays the West’s fixation with measurement and control – missing the point completely.