Photo credit Owen Egan
Often regarded as an iconoclast and a rebel, Henry Mintzberg (1939- ) has certainly challenged many traditional ideas. But he does not attack people with whom he disagrees; he just quietly, simply and with devastating clarity, sets about proving them wrong. In his writing, which is the product of a career devoted single-mindedly to understanding how people actually manage, he resists every temptation to pontificate about how anyone ought to manage.
Life and career
Henry Mintzberg was born in Canada, and has spent virtually all his working life in that country. He studied at McGill University, and after further study at MIT, returned to Canada to take up an appointment with Canadian National Railways in 1961. In 1963 he moved into the academic world and by 1968 was back at McGill University as a professor, a post he holds to the present day. He is also director of the Centre for Strategic Studies in Organization at McGill and has held several important positions in other management institutions, including that of visiting professor at INSEAD. He has been a consultant to many organisations throughout the world and from 1988 to 1991 he was President of the Strategic Management Society.
Mintzberg's major impact on the management world began with his book The nature of managerial work, published in 1973, and a seminal article in Harvard Business Review, The manager's job: folklore and fact written two years later. Based on detailed research and thoughtful observation, these two works established Mintzberg's reputation by showing that what managers did, when successfully carrying out their responsibilities, was substantially different from much business theory.
Mintzberg's contribution to management thinking is not based on one or two clever theories within some narrow discipline.His approach is broad, involving the study of virtually everything managers do and how they do it. His general appeal is further enhanced by a fundamental belief that management is about applying human skills to systems, not applying systems to people - a belief that is demonstrated throughout his writing.
How managers work
In his article The manager's job: folklore and fact, Mintzberg sets out the stark reality of what managers do: 'If there is a single theme that runs through this article, it is that the pressures of the job drive the manager to take on too much work, encourage interruption, respond quickly to every stimulus, seek the tangible and avoid the abstract, make decisions in small increments, and do everything abruptly'.
Mintzberg uses the article to stress the importance of the manager's role and the need to understand it thoroughly before attempting to train and develop those engaged in carrying it out.
"No job is more vital to our society than that of the manager. It is the manager who determines whether our social institutions serve us well or whether they squander our talents and resources. It is time to strip away the folklore about managerial work, and time to study it realistically so that we can begin the difficult task of making significant improvements in its performance."
In The nature of managerial work, Mintzberg proposes six characteristics of management work and ten basic management roles. These characteristics and roles, he suggests, apply to all management jobs, from supervisor to chief executive.
The six characteristics are:
1. The manager's job is a mixture of regular, programmed jobs and unprogrammed tasks.
2. A manager is both a generalist and a specialist.
3. Managers rely on information from all sources but show a preference for that which is orally transmitted.
4. Managerial work is made up of activities that are characterised by brevity, variety and fragmentation.
5. Management work is more an art than a science and is reliant on intuitive processes and a feel for what is right.
6. Management work is becoming more complex.
Mintzberg places the ten roles that he believes make up the content of the manager's job into three categories:
a) Figurehead - performing symbolic duties as a representative of the organisation.
b) Leader - establishing the atmosphere and motivating the subordinates.
c) Liaiser - developing and maintaining webs of contacts outside the organisation.
a) Monitor - collecting all types of information that are relevant and useful to the organisation.
b) Disseminator - transmitting information from outside the organisation to those inside.
c) Spokesman - transmitting information from inside the organisation to outsiders.
a) Entrepreneur - initiating change and adapting to the environment.
b) Disturbance Handler - dealing with unexpected events.
c) Resource Allocator - deciding on the use of organisational resources.
d) Negotiator - negotiating with individuals and dealing with other organisations.
The structure of organisations
In his 1979 book, The structuring of organizations, Mintzberg identified five types of `ideal' organisation structures. The classification was expanded 10 years later in the book Mintzberg on management and the following more detailed view of organisation types drawn up:
- The entrepreneurial organisation - small staff, loose division of labour, little management hierarchy, informal, with power focused on the chief executive.
- The machine organisation - highly specialised, routine operating tasks, formal communication, large operating units, tasks grouped under functions, elaborate administrative systems, central decision making and a sharp distinction between line and staff.
- The diversified organisation - a set of semi-autonomous units under a central administrative structure. The units are usually called divisions and the central administration referred to as the headquarters.
- The professional organisation - commonly found in hospitals, universities, public agencies and firms doing routine work, this structure relies on the skills and knowledge of professional staff in order to function. All such organisations produce standardised products or services.
- The innovative organisation - this is what Mintzberg sees as the modern organisation: one that is flexible, rejecting any form of bureaucracy and avoiding emphasis on planning and control systems. Innovation is achieved by hiring experts, giving them power, training and developing them and employing them in multi-discipline teams that work in an atmosphere unbounded by conventional specialisms and differentiation.
- The missionary organisation - it is the mission that counts above all else in such organisations; and the mission is clear, focussed, distinctive and inspiring. Staff readily identify with the mission, share common values and are motivated by their own zeal and enthusiasm.
Strategy and planning
The relationship between strategy and planning is a constant theme in Mintzberg's writing and his views on the subject are perhaps his most important contribution to current management thinking. In his 1994 book The rise and fall of strategic planning, Mintzberg produces a masterly criticism of conventional theory.
His main concern is with what he sees as basic failings in our approach to planning. These failings are:
- Processes - the elaborate processes used create bureaucracy and suppress innovation and originality.
- Data - `hard' data (the raw material of all strategists) provides information, but `soft' data, Mintzberg argues, provides wisdom: 'Hard information can be no better and is often at times far worse than soft information'.
- Detachment - Mintzberg dismisses the process of producing strategies in ivory towers. Effective strategists are not people who distance themselves from the detail of a business: '..but quite the opposite: they are the ones who immerse themselves in it, while being able to abstract the strategic messages from it.'
- He sees strategy: '...not as the consequence of planning but the opposite: its starting point'. He has coined the phrase crafting strategies to illustrate his concept of the delicate, painstaking process of developing strategy - a process of emergence that is far removed from the classical picture of strategists grouped around a table predicting the future. He argues that while an organisation needs a strategy, strategic plans are generally useless as one cannot predict two to three years ahead.
Henry Mintzberg remains one of the few truly generalist management writers of today, and has applied his ideas on management to the management education field, believing that this area is in great need of reform. He was instrumental in setting up an International Masters in Practising Management in 1996, which seeks to change the traditional way in which managers are educated.
His work covers such a wide perspective that different readers see him as an expert in different areas. For some people he is an authority on time management, and he has written some of the most thoughtful and practical advice on this subject; for others he is the champion of the hard-pressed manager surrounded by management theorists telling him or her how to do their job; and for yet another group, he is a leading authority on strategic planning.
For most people, however, Mintzberg is the man who dared to challenge orthodox beliefs and, through the scholarly presentation of research findings, and some truly original thinking, changed our ideas about many key business activities.
The following are all available from The British Library: type the title into the search box on the right to check availability. Members of CMI can borrow them from CMI's library, see http://www.managers.org.uk/library or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Key works by Henry Mintzberg
Managing. FT Prentice-Hall, 2009
Management: it's not what you think. (With Bruce Ahlstrand and Josepeh Lampel). FT Prentice-Hall, 2010
Strategy bites back. (With Bruce Ahlstrand and Josepeh Lampel). Pearson, 2005
Managers not MBAs. Berrett-Koehler, 2004
Strategy safari. (With Bruce Ahlstrand and Joseph Lample) London: Prentice-Hall, 1998
The strategy process: concepts, contexts, cases (3rd ed). London: Prentice-Hall International, 1996
The rise and fall of strategic planning. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice-Hall International, 1994
Mintzberg on management: inside our strange world of organizations. New York: Free Press, 1989
Power in and around organizations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1983
Structures in fives: designing effective organizations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1983
The structuring of organizations: a synthesis of the research. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979
The nature of managerial work. New York: Harper and Row, 1973
Key articles are given below, for a complete list from 1967 to date, with some links through to full text, please see http://www.mintzberg.org/articles
The manager's job: folklore and fact. Harvard Business Review, 68 (2) Mar-Apr 1990, pp. 163-176. Originally published in 1975, the article includes a retrospective commentary by the author.
Crafting strategy. Harvard Business Review, 65 (4) Jul-Aug 1987, pp. 66-75
The fall and rise of strategic planning. Harvard Business Review, 72 (1) Jan-Feb 1994, pp. 107-114
Rounding out the manager's job. Sloan Management Review, 36 (1) Autumn 1994, pp. 11-26
Musings on management. Harvard Business Review, 74 (4) Jul-Aug 1996, pp. 61-67
Managing on the edge. International Journal of Public Sector Management, 10 (3) 1997, pp. 131-153
The yin and yang of managing. Organizational Dynamics, 29 (4) 2001, pp. 306-312
Henry Mintzberg's website