As managers, we look for solutions when we are faced with persistent organizational issues. Perhaps staff are falling way short of productivity targets, or client complaints about staff communication are pouring in, or staff seem at war with each other over apparent inter-personal issues. If what we have tried so far hasn’t worked, we check with colleagues, go to a conference, or surf the web looking for ideas. Or, someone else has done those things and comes back, excitedly, with ‘the solution’! How can you tell if the solution will be useful or if it’s a short-term fad, like something pulled out of a hat?

A 2002 article in the Harvard Business Review, titled Spotting Management Fads, claims some fads such as Management by Objectives (MBO) or Total Quality Management (TQM) had some positive effect over a short period of time, but have not endured over the long run.

Since it often requires extensive resources to implement a new initiative in a large organization, short term solutions can be wasteful. Moreover, the experience of implementing fads may also demoralize staff who grow weary after each successive effort to try something new. So you want to make sure you are investing time in a worthwhile initiative that will have an enduring benefit, not a management fad that will go out of style in a year. You want to make sure the intervention is directed at the root causes of your problem, and is implemented properly.

Using Quality Improvement as an example, different approaches have come like waves over the past decades. I was awarded a management fellowship at the Juan de Fuca Hospitals in Victoria, B.C. in the mid-1990s. A manager had gone to a conference on Quality Assurance and came back raving that we had to implement this new program at the hospital. Jack Howard, the CEO, adamantly said, ‘No!  When I later asked him his reasoning, he said, ‘Quality is one of those foundational accountabilities of every manager, along with achieving outputs and controlling and minimizing costs. Quality, cost and output are interdependent; a goal to change one may very well affect the others.  And the mantra of doing more (output) for less (cost) is misguided if the objective to at least maintain quality is not explicitly addressed.’ I have never forgotten that lesson!

Approaches such as Quality Assurance and Total Quality Management focused on structure and process oriented interventions such as a centralized manager or co-ordinator ‘in charge’ of quality, new templates and process for setting goals and measurement, and regular reporting of those measures. The implementation of these approaches may have given the semblance that quality improvement was a priority, but fell short because the culture of accountability was not decentralized so that every manager recognized their responsibility.

Alternatively, recent approaches to quality such as from the Institute for Health Improvement or LEAN integrate the foundational principles of the manager’s responsibility:

  1. They focus on quality as being interdependent with efficiency and cost, and
  2. They decentralize and empower everyone’s responsibility for quality, including a process for implementation that engages the staff as teams so they become aware of their interdependence. I saw this work effectively during a LEAN exercise to improve quality in patient care. In that experience, a hospital nurse, housekeeper, medical secretary and physician work effectively together, drawing on their complementary and respective responsibilities to ensure that after a patient was discharged, the room was quickly readied for the next one.

Here are three key considerations to help assess if an initiative is worth your time and effort:

The initiative addresses the root causes of the problem, or your best assessment of it.

It pays to do the work to understand your problem and its causes well enough to be able to assess if a particular solution has promise to improve the situation.

Even if the proposed solution is reportedly working in another organization, ask the following questions:

  • How is that organization like yours? How is it not?
  • How did that organization understand its problem and choose or develop that option as a solution? What is the rationale for the initiative’s effectiveness? How is it measuring its success, over what time period?

If that organization does not share the analysis that led it to its development or choice of solution, it may mean you need to further ‘test’ your assumptions about how the solution could apply to your situation.

The approach of the proposed solution respects the basic accountabilities of the managers, and doesn’t do an end-run around them.

An approach that centralizes management responsibility to the ‘executive office’ may be directed at making the focus on quality more significant; alternatively, it can make the initiative seem less authentic and diminish the imperative for improvement at the frontline.

You can pilot the approach with a team to test it out.

Engaging managers and staff to pilot the approach will help you learn from your own experience, build leadership amongst your staff to support others who will later implement the initiative if the pilot was successful, and put your organization’s own stamp on the solution.

In a nutshell, it may not be easy to differentiate a fad from a foundational solution. But, it is worth your investment of time and attention to assess whether a proposed solution is legitimate and feasible: If you were building a house for enduring shelter, you would set criteria to ensure that the model of house suited your needs, that the materials you were using were of sufficient quality, and that the architect’s design respected the law of physics.

While some fads have useful elements of practice that can help your organization, don’t invest substantial resources for insufficient return. Find what is useful, but don’t undermine the basic responsibilities and accountabilities of your managers and staff.

It would be fun to hear your stories of implementing fads – please share them by replying in the comments box. I would also be happy to answer any questions you have about spotting fads.