Space exploration is the crowning glory of human achievement. Anyone working in this industry—astronauts flying the spaceships and rocket scientists building them are the heroes of contemporary society.
Ever since the start of the space race in the 1960s, rocket engineering has been perceived as the most complex human activity. Rocket scientists became the ultimate symbol of human intelligence and the phrase “It is not rocket science” has been heard in offices around the English-speaking world.1
Does this statement make sense? Is rocket science so much more complicated than management? I think that rocket science is grossly overrated and that the science of management is a lot more complicated than the science of building rockets.
The science of space exploration has been a lot more successful than the science of management. Robots explore Mars; one spaceship has left the solar system; people have walked on the moon, and much more exciting exploration is yet to come. Management as a science has not achieved much compared to rocket science. There is, for example, no generally accepted theory for motivation or effective decision making.
Rocket science is an extension of physics, and therefore all processes are entirely predictable. The more research scientists do, the better they understand the physical processes, the more predictable technology becomes. Management is not a physical science but a social science. Human behaviour is not like a physical process that can be predicted with high accuracy. Individual behaviour is unpredictable and more controlled by emotion than by reason.
Some might argue that human behaviour is, in essence, a physical process. It is, however, so complicated that it becomes inherently unpredictable as we are unable to model human behaviour in physical terms. There are no computer programs to help managers deal with people; there are no simple rules to make correct decisions—a lot of management is based on unsubstantiated rules of thumb and intuition.
That leaves me to conclude that management is not rocket science, it is a lot more complicated.
- Call, D. (2005). Knowledge management—not rocket science. Journal of Knowledge Management, 9(2), 19–30. doi:10.1108/13673270510590191; Dentzer, S. (2011). Innovation: Needed, but not rocket science. Health Affairs, 30(3), 378. Abbott, D. (2003). It’s not rocket science. The Safety & Health Practitioner, 21(8), 40–41.