Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Reading :: The Effective Executive

The Effective Executive
By Peter F. Drucker

I've linked to the latest version of The Effective Executive on, but I reviewed the 1967 version. That's right, this version was written the same year Cream released Disraeli Gears and the same year Star Trek aired its most respected episode, "The City on the Edge of Forever." I bring that up because, like those two examples, this version of The Effective Executive is firmly situated in its time, yet surprisingly relevant.

On one hand, The Effective Executive occupies a world in which the executive is always male and usually assisted by female secretaries as he steers the course of large manufacturing corporations. This world seems increasingly irrelevant in 2009. On the other hand, the executive is a prototype knowledge worker, someone who contributes to analyzing information and developing ideas - someone whose contributions cannot be easily monitored or counted in the sense that scientific management had enabled managers to monitor and count manufacturing output. Now that world is very relevant in 2009, and its problems are fresh and largely unsolved. The two world collide continually, as in this sentence early in the book: "The knowledge worker cannot be supervised closely or in detail. He can only be helped. But he must direct himself, and he must direct himself toward performance and contribution, that is, toward effectiveness." (p.4).

When you read this book, then, think of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, in which a spacegoing society uses what appear to us to be relatively backward computer and communications technology while managing casual space travel and faster-than-light jumps. Ignore the 1967-era language and examples, and you'll see a lot of contemporary, even forward-looking concepts. In fact, you may find that The Effective Executive is the Big Bang of popular management books. Here's Drucker's list of the five practices of the effective executive - along with more recent books that pick up and extend each practice.
  1. "Effective executives know where their time goes." (p.23 and Chapter 2) - See David Allen's Getting Things Done

  2. "Effective executives focus on outward contribution." (p.24 and Chapter 3) - Again, see David Allen's Getting Things Done

  3. "Effective executives build on strengths - their own strengths, the strengths of their superiors, colleagues, and subordinates; and on the strengths in the situation, that is, on what they can do." (p.24 and Chapter 4). See Marcus Buckingham's Go Put Your Strengths to Work

  4. "Effective executives concentrate on the few major areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results." (p.24 and Chapter 5) - See Jim Collins' Good to Great.

  5. "Effective executives ... know that [making effective decisions] is, above all, a matter of system - of the right steps in the right sequence" (p.24 and Chapter 6) - See any text on project management, especially Scott Berkun's The Art of Project Management.

In many ways, these other books have simply taken and developed the principles that The Effective Executive listed in 1967. Since knowledge work has spread much more widely, the book still seems fresh in parts in 2009, and maybe even more relevant. In particular, Drucker points out that "in a knowledge areas there are no superiors or subordinates ... yet organization requires a hierarchy," and in this contradiction, "the knowledge worker ... is in danger of alienation, to use the fashionable word for boredom, frustration, and silent despair" (p.173). And therefore "the position, function and fulfillment of the knowledge worker is the social question of the twentieth century" (p.173). Knowledge workers need not just economic rewards, but also achievement, fulfillment, and values (p.174). Still true, perhaps more so. Also true - more true than ever - is Drucker's assessment that education and effectiveness are the only competitive advantages that the United States possesses over other nations (p.5).

On the other hand, I don't think that Drucker in 1967 anticipated the effects of widespread knowledge work coupled with loose networked organizations. His focus is on the executive who can shape the organization around himself [sic] and who can strategically plan over decades of engagement. So in the end, The Effective Executive can only point us to further development and evaluation of its principles for the light networked organizations we are starting to see. Nonetheless, I highly recommend it.

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