Monday morning is not the best time to be told to ‘bridge the quality chasm’ and ‘identify your value stream’. I was having the misfortune of starting my week with a talk that introduced new health-service management ideas based on psychological sounding ideas such as ‘lean thinking’ and ‘connected leadership’.
Now, I’ve got no problem with things sounding like bullshit, as long as they work. After all, medicine is one of the few places where you can get away with calling the practice of squirting cold water in the ear ‘vestibular caloric stimulation’.
No-one minds that much, because it’s been very well researched and is known to have a profound, albeit temporary, effect on a number of neurological conditions.
So if I wanted to find out whether any of these new management techniques made an organisation more efficient, the first thing I’d do is find out what the research says.
In health and medicine, the ‘gold standard’ for finding our whether an intervention has an effect is the randomised controlled trial or RCT.
It’s a simple but powerful idea. You get a group of people you want to study. You measure them at the beginning. You randomly assign them to two groups. One gets the intervention, the other doesn’t. You measure them at the end. If your intervention has worked, one group should be different when compared to the others.
Of course, it gets a bit more complex in places. Making the comparison fair and deciding what should be measured can be tricky, but it’s still a useful tool.
After my traumatic Monday morning experience I went to see what randomized controlled trials had been done on management techniques.
To my surprise, I found none. Not a single RCT in any of the business psychology literature.
Now, this may be because I know little about organisational psychology, and literature searches are as much about knowing the key words as knowing what you want. So maybe RCTs are called something completely different, or I’m just looking in the wrong places.
So, if you know of any RCTs done on leadership and management techniques, please let me know, I’d be fascinated to find out.
I could completely wrong, but if I’m not, I want to know why are there no randomised-controlled trials in organisational psychology?
And as a corollary, are we spending millions on organisational interventions to supposedly help patients that have been tested no further than the pseudoscience we reject for every other area of medicine?
UPDATE: Some interesting comments from organisational psychologist Stefan Shipman:
It may be that the complexity lies in that organizational research is always secondary to doing business. I can remember in some of my early research that I attempted to implement a new human resources program in one department. The program was successful in its early stages and was (despite my suggestions) implemented company wide.
I think your post absolutely speaks to the frustration of all organizational psychologists because the zeal of organizations to find “new” ways of doing business that are hopefully more effective. This zeal often reduces the “completeness” of research. As organizational psychologists we accept the conditions under which real world research can be done. We encourage the assignment of conditions but accept that some ideas or programs might “leak” into other parts of the organization.