Published: 25 March 2022
Students at the University of Sunderland in London, whatever degree they’re studying for, are overwhelmingly interested in becoming leaders when they graduate.
One of the key questions managers in every sector ask themselves is how to help their team complete their tasks in the best ways possible.
In this article, Afzal Munna, lecturer in Undergraduate Business Management tackles the theory of MBO and how it can be used in the modern workplace.
“What is the best way for us as managers and business leaders to make sure the wider goals of the company are actually achieved?
One theory, put forward in 1954 by management consultant Peter Drucker, was management by objectives (commonly known as MBO today).
Essentially, MBO is the practice of breaking down larger tasks into smaller ones, whether that’s on the company-wide or individual level.
It allows each employee to focus on one task at a time without getting bogged down by the enormity of the larger objective.
Known as ‘task objectives’, these individual parts, for the manager at least, can include things like envisioning your goals, motivation achieving unity among your staff and learning how to explain tasks.
In the nearly 70 years since Drucker published his theory, MBO has become a key influencer in the decision-making process of many managers.
Whichever degree you’re studying, as future leaders in your industries, you’ll find it to be an important tool for exercising your influence in your organisation.
That is, in large part, because of the simplicity of the idea. It stands to reason that by breaking a large task up into smaller ones it’ll be easier to complete.
Just think of writing an assignment. It can be a daunting task at first, but if you think about it as a series of readings, paragraphs and editing sessions, it suddenly becomes a lot more manageable.
But with that being said, it’s how we approach the breaking up of those tasks that can have the biggest impact.
Each MBO characteristic therefore should always be in line with the best in leadership practice.
Put simply, you should think about the management reason for each task you assign to your team.
Taking that further, serious thought needs to be given to which MBO characteristics are put in place for each situation.
No two tasks are the same, so it stands to reason that you can’t just perform the same smaller MBO things each time and expect an equal outcome.
We need to diagnose the purposes of the project and assign specific MBOs to meet them.
An added point here is that good leaders agree on such objectives with their team, rather than top-down assigning tasks with no input.
By using this methodology, we’re creating leadership practices that result in the ability to set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely) - long considered the cornerstone of a successfully managed project.
Does MBO fail?
Of course, when we’re looking at any management theory it’s important to ask ourselves where it falls down.
Yes, MBO does fail. And when it does it’s typically down to how the individual MBO tasks are implemented.
Perhaps a bigger fault with the theory at large is, what happens when we don’t perform one MBO well enough?
It can lead to a cascade of failure throughout the system which ultimately leads to the end of the project.
That’s why it’s so important to properly implement each MBO, stay organised throughout and rely on your team by creating a democratic environment where every opinion is valued and considered.
It’s tempting, then, to look for the ideal MBO formula - the one where nothing fails and each project always works out as it should.
It hasn’t been found yet, and it likely never will. But one of the exciting things about leadership practice is trying to get there. Tweaking and changing how we do things in pursuit of the ideal.
Knowing the quest for improvement is always out there is, for many leaders, the very reason to stay in their roles. It’s a driving force that keeps us going, makes us passionate about what we do.”
Afzal Munna teaches the BA (Hons) Business and Management course at the University of Sunderland in London.