'Be Bold,' 'Sell Your Solution,' and Other Management Clichés You Should Ignore

Photograph by Sam Edwards/Getty Images

If you are part of the new crop of MBA students preparing to join the ranks of the employed, listen up. We worry about some of the advice you may have picked up along the way. Sure, such sayings as “Keep your boss in the loop” and “It’s sometimes better to beg forgiveness than ask permission” are management truisms that still constitute great advice. But some of the other classics you’ve learned may not serve you well in a world increasingly characterized by ambiguity and uncertainty—a world that your case studies have not quite caught up to.

Here are six management myths we believe you should reexamine and perhaps replace with better maxims based on today’s realities.

Myth 1: Think big
What can be wrong with reaching for the stars? Plenty. Most really big solutions begin small and build momentum. How seriously would anybody have taken Amazon if it started as the “everything store”? In an earlier era, FedEx looked like a niche market. If you aspire to lead an innovative business, it is better to start small and find a deep, underlying human need with which to connect.

Better maxim: Be willing to start small, but with a focus on meeting genuine human needs.

Myth 2: Be bold and confident
In class, we too often reward conviction and decisiveness. This was less worrisome in the past, when business cultures were dominated by competition metaphors (sports and war being the most popular). During the 1980s and 1990s, mergers and acquisitions lent themselves to conquest language. Innovation and growth, by contrast, require a lot of nurturing, intuition, a tolerance for uncertainty, and a willingness to pivot.

Better maxim: Keep an open mind and always explore multiple options.

Myth 3: Don’t ask a question to which you don’t know the answer.
This one is borrowed from trial lawyers, and it traveled into the mainstream because it always seems career-enhancing to look smart. Unfortunately, growth opportunities do not yield easily to leading questions and preconceived solutions.

Better maxim: Be willing to start in the unknown and learn.

Myth 4: You can manage only what you measure.
This works fine in an operations setting, but when it comes to creating an as-yet-unseen future, there isn’t much to measure. Despite the illusion of comfort created by populating an Excel spreadsheet (a well-honed MBA skill), spending time trying to measure the unmeasurable does little to reduce risk.

Better maxim: Experiment. Place small bets quickly.

Myth 5: Sell your solution. If you don’t believe in it, no one will.
We suspect that you’ve been taught to be a great debater and defend your solutions. Trouble is, when you are trying to create the future, it is difficult to know when you have it right. It’s better to stay somewhat skeptical of what you think you know. What you should be certain about is that you’ve focused on a worthy problem. Then be willing to revise your way to a workable solution.

Better maxim: Choose a worthwhile problem and consider your solution to be a hypothesis to be tested.

Myth 6: If the idea is good, success will follow.
In class, we look at “failed” ideas with disdain, confident that if the idea were good it would have succeeded. The truth about ideas is that even the best succeed only when they attract the attention of the people who matter—and when the timing is right.

Better maxim: Every great idea needs the right supporters.

The challenge for all young professionals is to find a balance between the truisms of the classroom and the realities of business. In this age of uncertainty, an unavoidable but healthy tension exists between creating the new and preserving the best of the present, between innovating new businesses and maintaining healthy existing ones. If you want to lead, learn how to manage that tension. It will never resolve itself neatly the way so many of our lessons have.

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