I like magic tricks. Actually, I think most people do. My interest goes a little further than just being in awe: I know how many tricks are done. When you start seeing the similarity between tricks, you start to understand the structure of magic. And when you see the similarities between the structure of magic and management, things get scary. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Ask people what magic is, and they’ll say “make a train disappear”, “guess a playing card”, or “saw people in half”. But that’s only half of the story, maybe even less than half. The thing is, we all know that people can’t be sawn in half and survive unscathed afterwards. And trains do not actually disappear (except for your car keys on Monday morning). We know it’s a trick. And if you’ve ever seen one of these ‘magicians revealed’ shows, the actual ‘trick’ is usually trivial. It’s in simple things like mirrors, distracting attention and (in some cases) having a full deck of cards with just 1 type of card in it.
But the magic happens because the magician makes it appear he is doing something else – something seemingly impossible, and yet he pulls it off. How did he read my mind? How did he walk through that wall? We want to figure it out, but can’t, and then just enjoy that ‘magical’ experience. Image the magician doing the exact same trick but explaining truthfully what he is doing: “Look everybody! With this remote switch hidden in my hand I quickly change position of the mirrors and the train disappears! Isn’t it magical?”. No- it isn’t. And people will be at the cash registers demanding their money back.
I saw a very bad magician perform once and he had people draw a card and put them back in the deck. He then pulled out the correct card and said “is this it?”. Yes it was. He had the technique down, but he didn’t understand magic. He should’ve made his subject believe that he performed some feat by which he knew the card! As you understand, it wasn’t fun to watch.
So the structure of magic is achieving something one way but making people believe it was done in another (impossible) way. The techniques to achieve it range from very basic to very elaborate.
Yeah, well, very nice, but what does all this have to do with management?
Excellent question. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not always this way, but, in many cases, management achieves things one way, and claims it was done another way (ie. by their almost magical cunning). This is possible because in today’s connected world cause-and-effect and not always clear. And if they’re not, you can just claim a cause to an observed effect. It’s good for your bonus, I’ll tell you that.
An example. A departmental dashboard measures a few dozen KPIs. Just by randomness and mean regression, some will go up and others go down. But the improving KPIs were because of good management and the deteriorating KPIs need extra focus. Sound familiar?
Another example. Yes it’s also something that really happened in my department. Chargeability (chargeable hours divided by total hours) has gone up for the department. This makes the department stand out and receives higher management praise. What really happened is that the secretaries were let go, who made only overhead hours. The administrative tasks they did (travel bookings, planning meetings, making minutes, etcetera) were now done by normal staff. But as staff had impossibly high chargeability targets, they made sure it was all charged to some account. So net, the department got less useful work done, assigned more simple tasks to overqualified people and charged projects $175-$250 per hour.
So… what can we do about it?
Unfortunately, very little. Because it is impossible to prove that something was not caused by something else. You can only argue a case that it was another, more likely cause. But who will listen? Only if you have a group of his/her peers or his/her manager that sees though this, you have a chance to right the wrong. It’s also your last chance, because it’s contagious; because it’s a superpower – if you get away with it. But it also makes for a toxic workplace where no real results matter anymore. In the long term, everyone will suffer. So If you find this going on in your workplace, let go of all scruples and join in. Or better, find a different job.
I like wrapping things up. In short: In magic as in management, cause and effect are usually hard to distinguish. Cunning managers will use this to their advantage and claim they are the cause of all goodness. It usually can’t be fixed so find another place to work.