Book Review: Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense

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Hard Facts Book Cover

Title: Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management
Authors: Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton
Publisher: Harvard Business School Press, 2006
ISBN: 1-59139-862-2
Price: £16.99
Reviewer: MAKE LINK (& PROFILE PAGE FOR SIMON JOHNSON)

On what basis do you make business-critical decisions? Following careful consideration of the evidence? Or on instinct, whether that be from the head or the gut? Meet two Stanford professors who are keen to convince you that you should be doing more of the former and somewhat less of the latter.

Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton of Stanford University make a keen case for the advantages of ‘evidence-based management’ in their latest book, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense.

They see honest management to be not about off-the-shelf techniques that can be easily digested and then spewed out at meetings. No magic tick lists or one-time fixes. Instead, the way forward should be governed by hard thinking; analysis of evidence, a grasp of perspective, a true understanding of what your organisation knows and doesn’t know, what works and doesn’t work.

"The authors are fairly scathing about the presumptive and prescriptive state of much management theory. They almost take glee in picking apart what they see as key management myths."

The authors are fairly scathing about the presumptive and prescriptive state of much management theory. They almost take glee in picking apart what they see as key management myths; that the ‘best organisations have the best people’, that work must be ‘fundamentally different’ to the rest of life, that business survival depends on the credo of ‘change or die’.

They see evidence-based management as ‘facing the hard facts’ about what works and what doesn’t, understanding the half-truths that pass for ’conventional management wisdom’ and rejecting the total nonsense that ‘too often passes for sound advice’.

This is seen as key to understanding the strengths and weaknesses of an organisation. Only by understanding what is actually going on can an organisation hope to make appropriate decisions for future success.

HR is seen as having a key role to play in this process. Pfeffer and Sutton are quick to acknowledge that “there is compelling evidence that when companies use human resource practices based on the best research, they trump the competition”. But poor analysis of the evidence to hand can lead to “suspect practices [which] damages performance and people”.

"Sometimes common sense in business is a rare commodity"

I’m certainly convinced by the argument. Too much faith placed in this week’s management fad can prove to be the difference between business success and failure, no matter what size of the organisation. Making decisions based on sound, interpreted evidence - if anything it seems a simplistic and commonsense approach. But there’s the rub - sometimes common sense in business is a rare commodity.

Experimentation is seen as the key. Seeing the organisation as a laboratory; trying out ideas and seeing if they work, recording and reacting on results and not feelings.

Some may say that some organisations cannot afford to experiment. Others may say that such organisations are set to fail anyway.

The book makes a sound case for implementing an evidence-based approach to management and, at the very end, poses the question; “Who will have the courage and wisdom to do it?.

Only you can answer that.

Review ratings:

  • Overall 4
  • Helpfulness 4
  • Layout 4
  • Value for money 4
  • Suitability for professional level Directors, managers, consultants
  • Would you recommend it? Yes

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