6 Management Myths to Avoid (and 6 Alternate Maxims to Consider)

Jeanne M. Liedtka and Timothy Ogilvie ,

Sayings like “keep your boss in the loop” and “it’s sometimes better to beg forgiveness than ask permission” are classic management adages. Many such sayings are great advice, but some of the old tenets just don’t work anymore.

As a manager, you might believe in common management myths because you think they will simplify your life. Perhaps now is the time to reexamine those myths and replace them with maxims grounded in reality.

Myth 1: Think big.

Pressure will always exist to be sure an opportunity is big enough, but most really big solutions began small and built momentum. When the Internet was still new, how seriously would you have taken eBay (online auctions) or PayPal (online escrow)? In an earlier era, FedEx seemed tailored for a niche market. To seize growth opportunities, starting small and finding a deep, underlying human need with which to connect is best.

Better maxim 1: Be willing to start small — but with a focus on meeting genuine human needs.

Myth 2: Be bold and decisive.

In the past, business cultures were dominated by competition metaphors (those related to sports and war being the most popular). During the 1980s and 1990s, mergers and acquisitions lent themselves to conquest language. Organic growth, by contrast, requires a lot of nurturing, intuition and a tolerance for uncertainty.

Better maxim 2: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket — always explore multiple options.

Myth 3: Don’t ask a question to which you don’t know the answer.

This one is borrowed from trial lawyers, and it entered the mainstream because looking smart always seems career enhancing. Unfortunately, growth opportunities do not yield easily to leading questions and preconceived solutions.

Better maxim 3: Be willing to start in the unknown and learn.

Myth 4: Measure twice, cut once.

This one works fine in an operations setting, but when the goal is creating an as-yet-unseen future, there isn’t much to measure. And spending time trying to measure the unmeasureable offers temporary comfort but does little to reduce risk.

Better maxim 4: Place small bets fast.

Myth 5: Sell your solution. If you don’t believe in it, no one will.

When you are trying to create the future, knowing when you have it right is difficult. We think being skeptical of your solution is fine — what you should be certain of is that you’ve focused on a worthy problem. You’ll iterate your way to a workable solution in due time.

Better maxim 5: Choose a worthwhile customer problem, and consider it a hypothesis to be tested.

Myth 6: If the idea is good, the money will follow.

Managers often look at unfunded ideas with disdain, confident that if the idea were good, it would have attracted money on its own merits. The truth about ideas is that we don’t know if they are good; only customers know that. Gmail sounds absurd: free email in exchange for letting a software bot read your personal messages and serve ads tailored to your apparent interests. Who would have put money behind that? The answer, of course, is Google.

Better maxim 6: Provide seed funding to the right people and problems, and the growth will follow.

The challenge for managers is to find a balance between the myths and the realities of business. In this age of uncertainty, an unavoidable but healthy tension exists between creating the new and preserving the best of the present, between innovating new businesses and maintaining healthy existing ones. As a manager, you need to learn how to manage that tension, not adopt a wholly new set of techniques and abandon all the old. The future will require multiple tools in the managerial tool kit — a design suite especially tailored to starting and growing businesses that adds to our current set of analytically oriented approaches to managing today’s businesses well.

This material is excerpted from “Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Tool Kit for Managers,” by Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie.

About the Faculty

Jeanne M. Liedtka

Liedtka is an expert on the hot topic of design thinking and how it can be used to fuel innovation and organic growth.

Liedtka’s most recent books are The Catalyst: How You Can Lead Extraordinary Growth (named one of Businessweek’s best innovation and design books of 2009), Designing for Growth: A Design... Learn More

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