for 8 August 1996. Updated every THURSDAY.

 

 

Men Made Out of Words

 
What management texts have to teach
us often comes in the form of the
blindingly obvious. This in itself
should come as no surprise, and it's
possible that anyone who'd lay out
cash money for such books deserves
to read glaucoma-inducing mini-novas
of banality like:
 
While the past affords us 
the opportunity to learn
many useful lessons that can be
applied in the present, we can also
gain insight for today by giving
some thoughtful consideration as to
what lies ahead for us in the
future. 
 
Indeed, much (if not most) of the
advice afforded by today's purveyors
of pseudo-Peters pap excretes the
unpleasnt stench of a
poorly-attended compost pile -
infrequently turned and pitifully
homogenous. These master
bullshitters rely upon improbable
neologism and hackneyed analogies to
fertilize capitalism's bittersweet
garden of delights, but there are
only so many words for "quality,"
and a limit to the different ways
one might rearrange the concepts of
"team" and vision." Faced with
restricted metaphorical resources
and limited lexicons, these carfeul
groundsmen have two options - give
up or dig in.
 
 
They could throw caution to the wind be
honest about the skills needed to
succeed in the corporate world
(Floyd Kemske's boss-as-bloodsucker
novels leap to mind). This
slash-and-burn approach to economic
agriculture produces such jaunty
tomes as Andrew Grove's Only the
Paranoid Survive. This amusingly
pessimistic book's thesis - "[T]he
prime responsibility of a manager is
to guard constantly against other
people's attacks" - treads a fine
line between the blindingly obvious
and the simply brilliant; that is,
until its psychotic simplicity is
marred by the introduction of a YAWN -
Yet Another Workplace Neologism.
Grove's description of "strategic
inflection points" quickly devolves
into everyone's favorite
exhortation/euphemism/soporific:
"Embrace change!"
 
Still, Grove's handy with a match,
and the occassional comparisons of
the business world to "deadly
rapids" or "enemy territory" are
made all-the-more robust for their
being dropped indiscriminately
throughout his dangerously dry
chronicle of Intel's recent past.
 
 
What other options are left to those
who give the Invisible Hand its
green thumb? From slash-and-burn, we
shift to the more strenuous act of
crop rotation, and word-substitution
metastasizes into clumsy attempts at
"paradigm shifts." These authors go
beyond the standard drip-irrigation
approach to commercial copy. Instead
of sprinkling colorful metaphors
here and there, they flood the field
with purple prose, replanting the
entire business world in some other
ecosystem entirely, for the purpose
of... well, stating the obvious, but
in a different way.
 
At its best, this transmogrification
generates corporate prose that is
truly poetry. Who could ask for a
more articulate review of
micro-management follies than the
observation that "[t]he only emperor
is the emperor of ice cream"?
 
Alas, simply shelving Wallace Stevens
in a different section would
probably do little for either his
sales or for the blossoming industry
of consulting. Rather, poetry must
be repackaged and commerce's plot
recast as a fundamental battle of
Light and Dark.
 
Not that this is such a leap. In
fact, the knee-jerk reaction many
have to David Whyte's The Heart
Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation
of the Soul in Corporate America is:
"Well, at least he realizes that's a
problem."
 
Sadly, Whyte does little with his
golden opportunity to introduce MBAs
to a/b/a. Difficult as it may be to
believe, The Heart Aroused is even
less useful than most business
books, as Whyte turns the
Apollonian/Dionysian trope into an
excuse for endless equivocation.
Chapters end on notes of resounding
ambivalence, and the entire book is
summed up with the statement that
"power must be built on
vulnerability... innocence cannot be
sacrificed to experience...
creativity is the art of wedding
simplicity and clarity with chaos."
Ah, what good news for both the meek
and the stupid.
 
 
If The Heart Aroused buries its (lack
of a) point in an overarching
metaphor of interiority, Wess
Roberts's and Bill Ross's Make It
So sends the business greenhouse
into exhuberant orbit. Purporting to
illustrate "Leadership Lessons from
Star Trek: The Next Generation,"
it's tempted to feed this harvest of
advice to the hogs.
 
Of course, the very absurdity of
Roberts's and Ross's premise turns
Make It So into the most
entertaining and useful business
text since... since, well, The
Dilbert Principle. And the precision
with which they've targeted their
demographic - geeks in management
positions who watch Star Trek - is
at once indisputable and yet thus
far untapped.
 
Writing in the voice of Jean-Luc
Picard, the authors conveniently
escape the gravity of purpose that
limits the efforts of earth-bound
scribes. Sure, the "lessons"
contained therein are the same
sun-spot flares of common sense that
we've all seen before ("Focus",
"Urgency," and the usually
overlooked "Competence" all get a
treatment), but at least you also
get bits of Trek minutiae. These
factoids (appropriately enough, the
Tamarian episode is recounted in
detail) are invaluable for
impressing officemates, and
therefore fall under the
"Initiative" rubric.
 
In the final analysis, the rhetorical
escapades employed by consultants
and writers are not so much futile
as irrelevant. Our grasp at
comprehending the chaos engine which
drives commerce, its tangled pistons
of motivation and competition, is as
persistant as it is inadequate. One
might argue that the economists who
speak in figures instead of figures
of speech, whose books approach the
jungle of corporate America with
razor-sharp charts instead of
clouded metaphors, offer a clearer
vision of the fruits of our labor.
But charts and graphs are just
another kind of gesture, and the
market marches on with or without
our inscribing it - the plum of
profit survives its poems.
 

[Zero Baud Archive]

courtesy of
Ann O'Tate