Jul 24th 2009
James March (born c 1928) is the gurus’ guru, a man who once came second in just such a poll to the incomparable Peter Drucker (Harvard Business Review, December 2003; see article). An unostentatious academic who spent most of his life on the faculty of Stanford University, described by Harvard Business Review as “a polymath whose career has encompassed numerous disciplines … he has taught courses on subjects as diverse as organisational psychology, behavioural economics, leadership, rules for killing people, friendship, decision-making, models in social science, revolutions, computer simulation and statistics”. A polymath indeed.
He is best known for his work on the behavioural theory of organisations, working at one time with Herbert Simon (see article), the definer of the idea of satisficing, with whom he wrote a classic book, “Organisations”. In this, and in the book he wrote with Richard Cyert, he developed a theory about the “boundedness” of managers’ behaviour. Just as consumers go for the satisfactory rather than the “best” decision when purchasing, so managers go for the less-than-rational decision when on the job, because they are necessarily restricted by human and organisational limitations.
In a more recent paper, which he entitled “The Hot Stove Effect”, after Mark Twain’s point that cats who learn to avoid hot stoves learn to avoid cold ones too, March warned that the way in which we learn to reproduce success results, inevitably, in a bias against both risky and novel alternatives.
John Padgett, a professor at the University of Chicago, wrote in the journal Contemporary Sociology that “Jim March is to organisation theory what Miles Davis is to jazz … March’s influence, unlike that of any of his peers, is not limited to any possible subset of the social science disciplines; it is pervasive”.
March has also written seven books of poetry and made a film (called “Don Quixote’s Lessons for Leadership”). His background notes to the film include a short prose poem:
That if we trust only when
Trust is warranted, love only
When love is returned, learn
Only when learning is valuable,
We abandon an essential feature of our humanness.
His love of language has led him to create some colourful metaphors—the garbage-can theory of organisational choice, for instance, which defines an organisation as “a collection of choices looking for problems; issues and feelings looking for decision situations in which they might be aired; solutions looking for issues to which they might be the answer; and decision-makers looking for work”. Problems and solutions flow in and out of the garbage can. Which problems get attached to which solutions is largely a matter of chance.
With Simon, H., “Organisations”, John Wiley & Sons, 1958; 2nd edn, Blackwell, 1993
With Cyert, R., “A Behavioural Theory of the Firm”, Prentice Hall 1963; 2nd edn, Blackwell Business, 1992
“A Primer on Decision Making”, Free Press, New York, and Maxwell Macmillan International, Oxford, 1994
“The Pursuit of Organisational Intelligence”, Blackwell, 1999
More management gurus
This profile is adapted from “The Economist Guide to Management Ideas and Gurus”, by Tim Hindle (Profile Books; 322 pages; £20). The guide has the low-down on more than 50 of the world’s most influential management thinkers past and present and over 100 of the most influential business-management ideas. To buy this book, please visit our online shop.