Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 2;   January 12, 2011:

Why Do Business Fads Form?

by

The rise of a business fad is due to the actions of both its advocates and adopters. Understanding the interplay between them is essential for successful resistance.
A fancy diagram of the kind that often accompanies management fads

A fancy diagram of the kind that often accompanies management fads. Usually there is text in the boxes and sometimes along the arrows. Often at first look it's difficult to grasp the meanings of the boxes and arrows but with appropriate amounts of training it sometimes makes some kind of sense. The role of the diagram in establishing and sustaining the fad is sometimes analogous to the secret handshake of some exclusive clubs. The diagram in stylized form also sometimes serves as a logo for the fad.

Many regard business fads as creations of their advocates, and adopters who waste resources on fads as innocent, if foolish, victims. While this view does contain some truth, it isn't entirely correct. Both adopters and advocates play roles in creating and sustaining fads.

Most business fads are indeed constructed by advocates. The instructions to advocates for creating and sustaining fads were written long ago by Edward Bernays, who summarized them in his 1928 book, Propaganda. In describing the role of a publicist, he writes:

He studies the groups which must be reached, and the leaders through whom he may approach these groups. Social groups, economic groups, geographical groups, age groups, doctrinal groups, language groups, cultural groups, all these represent the divisions through which, on behalf of his client, he may talk to the public.

In short, creating or sustaining business fads entails artful manipulation of the opinion-making organs of the subculture targeted for the fad.

For business fads, this means publishing books, journal articles, magazine articles, newsletters, Web sites, and tweets, while speaking at conferences and trade associations, appearing on business broadcasts, being interviewed by journalists, securing endorsements of opinion leaders, and, of course, advertising.

But advocacy would have little effect if people weren't susceptible to these means of influence. That susceptibility arises from multiple sources, many of which can be understood as components of what James G. March calls the logic of appropriateness. The term denotes the set of rules that apply to a specific kind of person in a specific kind of situation. This logic prescribes appropriate actions, including, perhaps, adopting a fad. Here are three components of the logic.

Normative standards
Normative standards are formal or informal expectations that decision makers must meet. Their supervisors expect them to behave in ways similar to the behavior of others in analogous positions.
If your subordinates have wasted resources on fads, perhaps you've been communicating expectations that might have contributed to their adoption decisions.
The fear of doing nothing
When a fad is ascendant, failure to adopt it, To insulate oneself from the pressure
to adopt fads, doing nothing
has to be acceptable
or to at least be conversant in its concepts, can be interpreted as being ignorant, indolent or worse.
To insulate oneself from the pressure to adopt fads, doing nothing has to be acceptable.
The need for justification
When decision makers need to justify their actions, there is no easier or more convenient "justification" than everyone-is-doing-it. It isn't actually a justification of anything, but supervisors often take it as such.
To control fad adoption, start by noticing that everyone-is-doing-it justifies nothing.

Saving an organization from wasteful fads might require defying the logic of appropriateness. It might at the same time be both perilously unconventional and the right thing to do. Do you have the courage to do the right thing? First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: The Focusing Illusion in Organizations  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing ChangeIs your organization embroiled in Change? Are you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt? Read 101 Tips for Managing Change to learn how to survive, how to plan and how to execute change efforts to inspire real, passionate support. Order Now!


PropagandaEdward Bernays, author of Propaganda, is regarded as the founder of the field of public relations.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenEMudcCzvnDHFfOEmner@ChacTcmtXTCJBjZfSFjIoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A bear trapThe Mind Reading Trap
When we think, "Paul doesn't trust me," we could be fooling ourselves into believing that we can read his mind. Unless he has directly expressed his distrust, we're just guessing, and we can reach whatever conclusion we wish, unconstrained by reality. In project management, as anywhere else, that's a recipe for trouble.
A Rough-Legged Hawk surveys its domainTake Any Seat: II
In meetings, where you sit in the room influences your effectiveness, both in the formal part of the meeting and in the milling-abouts that occur around breaks. You can take any seat, but if you make your choice strategically, you can better maintain your autonomy and power.
A light bulb, the universal symbol of creativityAsking Brilliant Questions
Your team is fortunate if you have even one teammate who regularly asks the questions that immediately halt discussions and save months of wasted effort. But even if you don't have someone like that, everyone can learn how to generate brilliant questions more often. Here's how.
A lunar eclipseMaking Meaning
When we see or hear the goings-on around us, we interpret them to make meaning and significance. Some interpretations are thoughtful, but most are almost instantaneous. Since the instantaneous ones are sometimes goofy or dangerous, here's a look at how we make interpretations.
A candleAnticipating Absence: Passings
In times more normal than ours, co-workers who pass on tend to do so one at a time. Disease or accidents rarely strike many co-workers in the same week, month, or year. There are exceptions — 9/11 was one such. This pandemic is another.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A micrometer capable of measuring to |plusmn .01 mmComing July 13: What Do We Actually Know?
Precision in both writing and speech can be critical in determining the success of collaborations in the modern workplace. Precision is especially important when we distinguish between what we surmise or assume and what we actually know. Available here and by RSS on July 13.
A mallet. The same object can be either a tool or a weaponAnd on July 20: Overt Verbal Abuse at Work
Verbal abuse in the workplace involves using written or spoken language to disparage, to disadvantage, or to otherwise harm others. Perpetrators tend to favor tactics that they can subsequently deny having used to harm anyone. Available here and by RSS on July 20.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEMudcCzvnDHFfOEmner@ChacTcmtXTCJBjZfSFjIoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.