Management books vs. "no single root cause"

Lorin Hochstein made the interesting point that many management books read like morality plays - this company didn't do X, and they failed, and that makes the people running the company bad. Even ignoring the morality aspect, it's simple and reductive - when there's an incident and a postmortem, we look for a multiplicity of contributing factors, so why not the same for companies? I'm an SRE manager, but generally I enjoy management books. Isn't there a huge hole here?

First off, I hadn't read the book he quoted, but... wow, that's blame-y. There's a difference between pointing out that in a particular situation they didn't do something and that lead to a bad outcome, and saying that they're therefore bad people. I think I've mostly stayed clear of that sub-genre in my reading.

Having got past the needless blame, I do recognise a lot of "single root cause" in these books. Assuming an incident management approach applies to running a company, surely any book describing a single root cause must be wrong?

Well, on the one hand, it's what the industry's set up for. These books are going to tell you success is not random, you're in control, and moreover you just need to follow the central thesis of the book for success. These people did, they're all billionaires now. These people didn't, and they went bust. I tend to find examples in management books really useful, but they're almost always reductive.

On the other hand... there's a place for tackling specific problems. While a postmortem might want to collect a dozen contributing factors, there's also room for saying "make sure you can roll back quickly" and "have good monitoring". These books are action items, not postmortems. A lot of these books do the equivalent of saying "you just need quick rollbacks and everything will be fine", but if you treat them as simplifying models that handle just one slice of reality and synthesise them together, I think there's still real value.

If management books are "known common contributing factors", what's the management theory equivalent of a postmortem? I would (weakly and with no real evidence) argue it's the case study approach used by e.g. HBS. And... the interesting thing about that is that while that is supposed to foster open discussion, the case studies are often intended to teach a specific point - to look for a particular root cause.

This brings me back to another point - is company management really like incident management? In some ways I see similarities with running production - there's a weakest link element, in that if just one area screws up, it doesn't really matter how the other departments are doing, you will have a bad time. However, in another way, I'm not so convinced. Much of incident response work is based around the idea of defense in depth. We have multiple contributing factors because no single root cause should be allowed to break things.

I'm not sure if this applies to a business. How do you build defense in depth around a huge investment decision? How can you apply the swiss cheese model to business success when your strategy requires extreme focus? The danger of a successful idea is its over-application. Maybe SRE-like tenets should not be applied to businesses as a whole. We should be thoughtful about what ideas should be carried over, how things can be adapted. Blameless postmortems might be interesting in other settings, for example. As usual, blanket application of a methodology is no substitute for careful thought.

Posted 2021-09-19.