Silver Bullet Syndrome and Richard Pascale’s Management Fads

“There isn’t a Silver Bullet solution” is one of those phrases that gets used quite a lot, you might have heard someone use it during a lapse into ‘management speak’?

Two things make me wonder about this; in many situations people actually want the ‘Silver Bullet’ and secondly, this is despite the fact they know that other silver bullets haven’t worked previously. Stick with me for a moment while I try and explain some of my thinking.

Silver Bullets and the Lone Ranger.  The magical power of silver bullets (you can read about here) goes back to the mystical times of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, where silver bullets were the only things that could stop (kill) dangerous and terrible beings like werewolves. However, I prefer the use they were put to by the Lone Ranger (it’s kids telly of my youth thing).

The Lone Ranger would ride into town and save people from the baddies without any wholesale killing and carnage. He used silver bullets in his gun as a symbol of justice, law and order. Very importantly, the expensive silver bullets were a reminder that life was precious and should not be thrown away. The point of the Lone Ranger not shooting to kill was that the law would ultimately provide justice.

Just to crush my childhood memories, one thing ballistics science tells us is that silver bullets probably aren’t as lethal as conventional lead bullets, an important point to remember for later.  And we mustn’t forget Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s buddy. This modern video from Robot Chicken emphasises the high cost of using silver bullets with a profound observation from Tonto at the end.

So what has the Lone Ranger got to do with Richard Pascale? Thanks to Matt (@ComplexWales) for opening my eyes to the work of Richard Pascale. This British Library, Management and Business Studies Portal article about Pascale’s work on; Change Management, Organisational Agility and Complexity is a good place to start reading.

One of the most well known pieces of work from Pascale is what he did to map out the ‘business fads’ that were being used in organisations. This looked at the period from 1950 up to 2000 and is illustrated in the graphic below.

Richard Pascale Business Fads 1950-2000. From Managing on the Edge
The vertical axis measures influence of each management theory (fad) and it is fairly self explanatory.

In the space of 50 years the workplace has become overwhelmed with management theories on how to run a better organisation.

Having discussed this with a few people it is quite sobering to add up the number of theories we recognise and how many we’ve been subjected to. What is even more worrying is the number where I was once a willing conspirator in implementing that particular fad…  Have a go yourself, there’s nothing to be ashamed of (……or maybe not).

Silver Bullet Syndrome. This is the link between Pascale and the Lone Ranger. I am willing to bet that at some time each of these management theories will have been presented as a ‘Silver Bullet’, to solve the problems of the organisation.

Source: Techwalla, What is Silver Bullet Syndrome. Kevin O’Donahue
I’m not sure if its an official syndrome, but Silver Bullet Syndrome has been described in by Kevin O’Donahue on the Techwalla site here. Definition attached.

What I do know about Silver Bullet solutions is:

  • They do cost money and resources. Nothing is for free and they might even be very expensive, like the Lone Rangers silver bullets – therefore use them sparingly.
  • Sometimes they don’t work as well as standard lead bullets (I did say remember that one).

Why do we have Business Fads and over use of Silver Bullets?  This is a tricky one to answer. I’m hoping that Matt (@ComplexWales) will ‘ride into town’ with some definitive evidence on the cognitive biases and psychology that explains this. In the meantime here are few suggestions from me:

  1. The need to be seen to be doing something different. A change in Managers/Leaders very often comes along with a new way of doing things. The new management fad could well be that ‘new paradigm’, even if the old way was perfectly good.
  2. Impatience. Sometimes things take a long time to work their way through from concept to impact. Some people will be impatient and will want to try something new rather than wait patiently.
  3. Not Invented Here Syndrome. This can often be associated with a change of Manager/Leader and is a need to have your favourite management theory rather than someone else’s.  It might be linked to Hubris?
  4. Over zealous Management Consultants, selling you expensive Silver Bullets you don’t need. Don’t under estimate the power of this one on what happens in organisations.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. There are literally dozens of management and business theories that have developed since 1950. Just be aware of what’s on offer, and where it sits alongside other theories.
  2. A ‘Silver Bullet’ can be significantly more expensive that a standard lead bullet. It’s worth thinking about all of the costs associated with a promising new idea.
  3. Be more like the Lone Ranger, he rarely used his Silver Bullets, only when they were really needed.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

13 Responses

  1. Great article, Keemo Sabi! Fad surfing is one of the most popular and expensive corporate sports, and generally leads to perpetual flip-flops (can’t work a Lone Ranger pun here, Chris!). Yet we also know that there are some universal truths which are timeless and have applied though the ages. Maybe it’s a bit like going to the gym -start off with hope in January, Peter out in February, find a new diet in March. Etc. The silver bullet is a pervasive and persuasive remedy to corporate boredom and aimlessness, but it never works sustainably…New mindsets needed as an antidote to organisational immunity to change?

  2. I’d add to your list of reasons people fall for silver bullets: A kind of FOMO … Don’t want to seem ‘unprogressive’ if everyone else is jumping on the new band wagon

  3. tonyjoyce

    I don’t particularly like to argue with Sonja as I’ll likely lose. Nevertheless, I doubt FOMO is the reason for so many management fads since the 1950s. I suspect that there has been a different dynamic, a competition for attention as theorists try to outdo each other at every pass. The consequence is fragmentation and more obscure views instead of a cohesive body of material that has some experimental evidence to substantiate it.

  4. Well, I can’t ignore a gauntlet like that, especially when it’s thrown so politely. This explanation of the cognitive and behavioural support for Silver Bullet Syndrome could take hours – cognitive bias codex – but I’ll pick off a few of my favourites, as promised.

    The most common is the Fundamental Attribution Error, or that tendency for people to over-emphasize personality-based explanations for behaviours observed in others, while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behaviour.

    In other words we tend to blame failure in other people on their character, rather than recognise the effect of context on what happened. Therefore, to do a better job next time, you need only be a better person than them and of course you are. Clearly all you need is any old process that sounds plausible and someone excellent to implement it, namely you. The world is full of weasels who’ll gladly sell an idiot a recipe for success based on nothing more than their existing amazingness. This has become more ubiquitous in organisations over the past 20 years as they have blindly bought into the idea of context free competencies. Some bland set of behaviours usually peddled by some HR troupe – who have never actually done the work of the organisation – in the blind belief that a general level of behavioural loveliness can be successfully applied anywhere to universally great effect.

    We’ve de-practitionered and dumbed-down our organisations to the point where the weasels get all their Christmases at once, every time we redisorganise ourselves and some new idiot gets put in charge of stuff. Which brings me to my second point; vacuous Leaderism!

    These organisational tourists, replete with their context free competencies, are strewn about the organisational world like the physical flotsam and jetsam of nepotism and good old fashioned ass kissing. They are parachuted on top of a system that they can’t possibly understand and quickly set about upsetting the locals, peeing in the sacred fountain, kick the loyal guard dog, taking the credit for great stuff that’s always been there and making their mark on a burning platform. They instigate a whole new industry of command and control wrapped up in words like transformation and culture and vision and most often prefix-leadership (it’s like leadership smeared in a thin veneer of marketing zeitgeist) and before anything can possibly besmirch their amazingness they are gone. We empty the fountain onto the burning platform and bury the dog.

    The most damaging bit is it’s usually cyclical, as they have no organisational memory beyond what the last idiot did and they clearly can’t continue that. So, they inevitably reinvent what the last but one idiot did, dressed up in slightly more trendy language, the latest fad. My favourite from Pascale is TQM which when it failed, was renamed Business Process Engineering and sold by the weasels to a whole new generation of idiots. It’s all the same stuff mostly called Lean, which is a reference to bacon in a book from 1990. The Silver Bullets should perhaps be called Silver Boomerangs, they keep coming back and anything ruled by political cycles is particularly well evidenced. Those run in 4 year cycles, so if you want to know what to put in your transformation plan for next year, simply look back 7 years and paste in that shite.

    Don’t start me on ‘learning organisation’ the irony is palpable and it leads me in to me favourite and last logical fallacy – hindsight bias. People look back on things fondly and rationalise events and influences that were never there before they were successful and we (@whatsthepont and @complexwales) have both written about this before, he says, looking back fondly.

    Most of the Silver Bullets, or unequivocal recipes for success, were actually constructed by someone who usually, muddled their way through to something successful and then smelt the gold in them thar hills. So they look back over what they did (which is never documented very well) and make up a perfectly plausible and rational explanation of the steps they took to succeed, as if they were there all along and followed from the beginning. They were not. These sellers are not necessarily the same as the weasels. Some of them, a very small proportion, are genuinely motivated by helping other people to succeed and learn from their triumphs and failures, they just don’t really understand how the actually did the stuff themselves and kid themselves into believing their own hype. Read Deceit and Self Deception by Robert Trivers or this Guardian Review.

    Finally a little gem of a phrase above that can’t go without reference. This is how most people actually do stuff and the Silver Bullet turns out to be a lead bullet. Everyone can do it, it’s free and is very easy, but inconveniently requires insight into the context, longstanding relationships, and experience over time to work its way through. Many learned people over centuries have written about it but Charles Lindblom coined the lovely phrase in an article in 1950 called Muddling Through and twenty years later, Still Muddling not yet Through.

    Sorry for the long reply, but I hope worth it.

    1. Just realised that WordPress removed all the links:

      Cognitive Bias Codex:

      Guardian Review:

      Muddling Through:

      Click to access Lindblom%20Muddling%20Through.pdf

      Still Muddling not yet Through:

      Chris, feel free to delete this if it doesn’t add anything useful – ditto above.

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