November 02, 2009

The church of the obvious

A snarky review of Stephen Covey's latest tome in The Economist concludes:

If management could indeed be reduced to a few simple principles, then we would have no need for management thinkers. But the very fact that it defies easy solutions, leaving managers in a perpetual state of angst, means that there will always be demand for books like Mr. Covey's.

The secret to Covey's success is the same for anybody packaging advice that most people would instinctively recognize as commonsensical, but have great difficulty adhering to. Hence diet books and Dr. Laura and practically all political punditry.

In fact, you could quickly get to the point where simply listening to the advice--let's call it a sermon (Covey is a Utah Mormon, after all)--becomes the whole point of the exercise.

Perhaps there is utility in being reminded (say, every Sunday) that a particular set of ideals exist and you ought to be working toward them, even if you don't plan on arriving at the destination anytime soon. Church as self-help window shopping.

But the whole thing starts chasing its tail when workable solutions get rejected as heretical by ideological purists. As when the Freakonomics guys proposed a cheap fix for global warming. (I love Althouse's term: "Blasphemonomics.")

The question of whether a diet (economic or otherwise) works cannot be separated from the ability of ordinary people (and governments) to follow its strictures. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and the ideal must inevitably yield to the pragmatic.

My experience at organizations where Coveyisms are freely bandied about is that the people regurgitating the sermons mostly do so to relieve themselves of the burden of applying the advice to themselves. Like driving a Prius while living in a mansion.

The same way it's easier (and more ideologically invigorating) to pass spankin' new health care legislation than reform Medicaid and Medicare. Or campaign against gay marriage than get all those ruttin' and divorcin' heteros to behave themselves.

That's how Emerson made a living. He talked transcendentalism. He wasn't so stupid as to actually live it (not like that nut Thoreau). Rush Limbaugh is honest enough to admit that he exists primarily to draw an audience and make money for his sponsors.

Because the only way to change the world is to change people, and that's pretty much impossible to do by shouting at them.

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# posted by Blogger Joe
11/02/2009 1:17 PM   
"Because the only way to change the world is to change people, and that's pretty much impossible to do."

There, fixed that for you.
# posted by Anonymous Dan
11/03/2009 7:07 AM   
Changing people? Well as manifest in most federal legislation there's always coercion. Now for institutions where membership is voluntary such as church and corporation coercion has to be applied more subtly, such as via a spouse or the threat of performance reviews and the carrot of stock options and bonuses.

What is apparent is people are pliable and while each person may have a few deep down held beliefs secondary preferences ebb and flow. This is why advertising matters. People's preferences change over time and the company that is constantly raising awareness of its products stands a better chance of catching new business.

Now would I rather buy a product from a pitchman who thought he was selling nirvana or from one who was looking to make a buck? The seller's state of mind really shouldn't make a difference to the buyer but obviously many sellers believe their sincerity and earnestness matters.