A Newtonian revolution in the world of work

Long time ago, physics, astronomy and the study of the natural world were accomplished through pseudo-scientific process. “Scientists” would reflect upon the structure of the world, describe movements by appealing to ether, essences, and other concepts that do not figure in our scientific conception of the world. The sun revolved around the Earth, who was known to be a flat surface. Then, through the power of disciplined, objective observation, Copernic, Galileo and many others pioneers gave us good reasons to believe that things might not be how we think they are. The Earth might not be flat and might not at the center of the solar system. Physical objects might not move because they have a “nature” to be “actualized”.

If we can identify a critical event in the scientific revolution that transformed the western world after the Middle Age, it would be the introduction of mathematics in physical science. As hard as it is to imagine, before Newton, physics did not use mathematical relationships, but was a qualitative science. Movement was not described by equations, but through vague concepts. Newton changed the course of history by giving us scientific laws expressed in mathematical equations. In other words, he helped ending the guesswork, the approximations, the pseudo-science that were the hallmark of traditional physics, and replaced it with precision, accuracy and predictability. Once we have a scientific model, we can make prediction, we can understand the world, and even change it. We can predict when comets will show up, and we can use our knowledge of gravity to build planes, space shuttles or bridges.

The management gurus of the last 50 years are the pre-Newtonian physicists of the business world. Many management ideas are actually ideologies, dogma, hype, personal experiences or success stories that receive an aura of acceptability under the label of “best practices”. Every year, a management expert studies an organization, an industry, a leader, a historical character, and come up with a book on management and leadership lessons. To name a few: the FBI, Amazon, Steve Jobs, Formula 1 racing, Shackleton, the Bible, Jazz, Muammar Gaddafi, Genghis Khan, Star Trek, the Cherokee Medicine Wheel have all been used as the basis of for a book about management. Every expert has his or her 3 fundamental truths, 5 principles, 7 rules, or 10 practices of success. We are inundated by business publications, authors, journal and books. It seems as if we somebody comes up with a new breakthrough or revolutionary framework every year.

There are some good reasons why this is the case: for sure, it is hard to consider management as a science, since it is not an observational activity. Leaders and managers have to act, decide, change, transform, and achieve results. They have more in common with an engineer than with a scientist, as the first one applies the knowledge to create and change things. People and organizations are complex systems, and it might be hard to explain them by a couple of equations, thus a better alternative is to learn by experience, yours and that of others. And there is some wisdom in this approach: learning the success stories of others gives us directions to solve problems or navigate uncertainty, and inspiration to go through difficult moments.

We have, however, more knowledge about human behavior than ever: from decades of research in neuroscience, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, social psychology, and behavioral economics, we have now a better understanding of human nature. We do not have to rely solely on gurus, “experts”, past experience and inspiring characters. We can apply this knowledge to better manage people and lead organizations rather than reinventing the wheel every time or falling for the latest fad. We can use evidence rather than hunches and personal experience. We can see patterns and generalizations behind the diversity of experience. Despite the variability of people, organizations and cultures, science can help us understand what motivates us, how we collaborate, what affects performance, etc.

It is not – and might never be – as crisp and elegant as Newon’s law of motions, but there is a scientific revolution happening within the management world. We let go of myths, dogma and unfounded practices. Enlightened organizations look for scientific knowledge (derived from behavioral science) and for a scientific approach to management.

Take recruitment: you can have your own hiring managers interviewing everybody who applies for a sales position. Using their own experiences and conventional wisdoms, they might select the loud, extravert sales person. Unknown to them, dues to their cognitive biases, they might also select people that they find attractive or who share a physical resemblance with  themselves, as research showed. You might not end up with the top performers. Another approach would be to build a detailed profile of a successful salesperson, using research on high-performing salespersons, looking for the common traits among people who close more deals and bring more revenues. And to make sure that this person also has some affinities with the current employees of the organization.

Science is a collective process. As Newton himself said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”; not one person or company can claim to have initiated this scientific revolution. Rather than relying on one individual’s intuition and experience, we need to look for data, evidence and knowledge. We need to create hypotheses about workforces, find the conditions under which they would be true or false, and submit these hypotheses to the tribunal of experience to see which one will be selected. We need to end these Dark Ages and create a new Enlightenment, a new Age of Reason, and advance management through the scientific method.