Book review - The future of management

My goal for June: 30 days, 30 book reviews. This post is a review of The Future of Management by Gary Hamel (and Bill Breen). My short recommendation? This book was easily the best leadership book I read in 2009 and should be required reading for all practicing and preservice school administrators.

What I liked about the book

Hamel is one of the leading leadership and business scholars of our time; he has won numerous awards for his writing. As you read through this review, whenever you see the word company or business, substitute school organization. The essential premise of this book is stated early on:

What ultimately constrains the performance of [an] organization is not its operating model, nor its business model, but its management model (p. x). [Unfortunately,] the equipment of [current] management is now groaning under the strain of a load it was never meant to carry. Whiplash change, fleeting advantages, technological disruptions, seditious competitors, fractured markets, omnipotent customers, rebellious shareholders – these 21st-century challenges are testing the design limits of organizations around the world and are exposing the limitations of a management model that has failed to keep pace with the times (p. x).

In other words, as Charles Leadbeater says, “old groaning corporations are the wrong shape” for the fast-paced, ever-changing, innovation-driven, global economy in which we now live.

Hamel notes a number of new environmental factors that now exist for organizations, including reduced barriers to entry across a wide range of industries; a shift in bargaining power to consumers rather than producers; a world of near-perfect information; and the rise of more nimble, global competitors “eager to exploit legacy costs of the old guard” (pp. 9–10). He then goes on to describe why management, rather than other factors, is the key to resolving many of these dilemmas. He also outlines three formidable challenges that now confront organizations:

  • Dramatically accelerating the pace of strategic renewal in organizations large and small;
  • Making innovation everyone’s job, every day; and
  • Creating a highly engaging work environment that inspires employees to give the very best of themselves. (p. 41)
  • These ring true for school systems as well as corporations.

    Hamel states that “if we were to measure the relative contribution that each of these human capabilities makes to value creation, . . . the scale would look something like this“

    • Passion 35%
    • Creativity 25%
    • Initiative 20%
    • Intellect 15%
    • Diligence 5%
    • Obedience 0% (p. 59)
    • Guess which ones school systems reward, both for their students and their employees?

      I liked Hamel’s emphasis on organizational learning. For example, he notes that “there is no surer way to undermine a new business venture than to measure it by the profits generated, rather than by the learning accumulated” (p. 225). Unfortunately, this happens all too often in the public schooling context when it comes to standardized testing results.

      One section of the book profiles different companies that are management outliers and identifies some key management lessons to be learned from them. For example, a key idea from Whole Foods Market is that “the biggest obstacle to management innovation may be what you already believe about management” (p. 79). One of the key lessons from W.L. Gore is that “management innovation often redistributes power (so don’t expect everyone to be enthusiastic)” (p. 96). A key lesson from Google is that “experienced managers may not make the best management innovators” (p. 119).

      The middle of the book had a statement that really resonated with me:

      The people who have a stake in the old technology are never the ones to embrace the new technology. It’s always someone a bit on the periphery, who hasn’t got anything to gain by the status quo, who is interested in changing it” (pp. 127–128).

      There are a small handful of us in educational leadership academe for whom this directly applies. We are trying to figure out how to publish or perish and become recognized as national experts in this new information landscape rather than the traditional one of peer-reviewed academic journals. We have little interest in burying our writing in places that educators in the field never read. We have little interest in writing that is disconnected from conversation and collaborative knowledge-building. We’re all in the first decade (or less) of our scholarly careers, however; we don’t have the legacy disability of having built our reputations in the world of ink on paper. Time will tell if we’re successful at challenging the old system or if we get beaten down and/or driven out by our collective peers.

      Hamel notes that current management was built around some core principles: standardization, specialization, hierarchy, alignment, planning and control, and the use of extrinsic rewards to shape human behavior (p. 151). All of these are under assault in our new technology-suffused, hyperconnected, globally-interconnected society. Some of the new management principles that now are ascendant include variety, flexibility, activism, meaning, and organization for serendipity (p. 179).

      Near the end of the book, Hamel postulates some key questions (and gives some potential answers):

      • How do you build a democracy of ideas?,
      • How do you amplify human imagination?,
      • How do you dynamically reallocate resources?,
      • How do you aggregate collective wisdom?,
      • How do you minimize the drag of old mental models?, and
      • How do you give everyone the chance to opt in? (pp. 189–190)
      • Those are great issues around which to invent the future of management.

        Key quotes

        The most critical question for every 21st-century company is this: Are we changing as fast as the world around us? (p. 42)


        Regulatory barriers, patent protection, distribution monopolies, disempowered customers, proprietary standards, scale advantages, import protection, and capital hurdles were bulwarks that protected industry incumbents from the margin-crushing impact of Darwinian competition. Today, many of these fortifications are collapsing. (p. 48)

        Does this sound like public schools to you? It does to me.


        No one has a blueprint for building an innovators’ paradise. It isn’t just your company - every big organization is inhospitable to innovation. If you want to build an innovation-friendly management system, you’re going to have to invent it. (p. 84)


        Some of your colleagues are likely to protest that while “it might work there, it will never work here.” When you’re up against a belief that seems set in concrete, it may be helpful to ask, whose interests does this belief serve? . . . It’s hardly surprising that most managers believe you can’t manage without managers. (p. 138)


        Vociferous, honest dissent is not a hallmark of hierarchical organizations. . . . Adaptability requires alternatives. Alternatives require dissenters. (pp. 167–168) Does anyone suppose that pathbreaking innovation will come out of intellectually homogenous companies? (p. 175)

        Questions I have after reading the book

        • How many public school systems have a hope of ever pulling off even a fraction of this?
        • What will it take for school leaders to recognize the organizational dangers that accompany
        • How long will it be before policymakers and parents recognize the limitations of current management strategies and begin advocating for something different?
        • Are ANY educational leadership preparation programs talking about this stuff?
        • Rating

          In the first section of the book, Hamel notes that

          When it comes to innovation, a company’s legacy beliefs are a much bigger liability than its legacy costs. . . . Few companies have a systematic process for challenging deeply held strategic assumptions. Few have taken bold steps to open up their strategy process to contrarian points of view. Few explicitly encourage disruptive innovation. (p. 54)

          The challenge for all school leaders - and the university programs that prepare them - is how to initiate and sustain these kinds of changes. This is what I’m wrestling with as an educational leadership professor.

          This is an excellent book. I have no hesitation giving it 5 highlighters (out of 5).

          [See my other reviews and recommended reading]

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