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Management development using Mintzberg's concept for reflection in the workplace

In this article, Nathalie Lussier of CoachingOurselves, the Canadian company founded by Henry Mintzberg and Phil DeNir in 2007, explains how they help organisations and managers learn through reflection in the workplace, using concepts developed by Professor Mintzberg, Jonathan Gosling, and their international colleagues.

Sometimes the best solutions are the ones you create to solve a problem for yourself out of necessity. This is the basis for a development programme used by thousands of managers worldwide called CoachingOurselves.

It started at a high tech company

Phil LeNir was director of engineering in a high technology company in Montreal, Canada. The company had gone through ups and downs and had recently been acquired by its competitor, so morale was not at its highest.

Some of his engineers suddenly found themselves in management roles after their programming work was outsourced to Eastern Europe, and they weren't prepared for this change.

This new development meant that Phil's engineers-turned-managers did not have the leadership background that was being asked of them, and after so many budget cuts there was no money for formal training or development.

Sometimes things happen for a reason

Luckily, Phil knew someone who might be able to help. He called up Professor Henry Mintzberg, author of many books on management including Managers not MBAs and his latest book, Managing - which has been shortlisted for the CMI-British Library Management Book of the Year 2011, awarded for outstanding contributions to management research and practice.

Phil asked Henry what he could do to help his managers in their tight financial spot. Under different circumstances, they might have gone to a posh offsite retreat to take a management development programme. But this was the real world, and they needed a solution as soon as possible.

Henry suggested that Phil and his managers meet periodically in a quiet space to reflect on their current challenges and activities, to share concerns, and to learn from their common experience. Even though it sounded a little too simplistic and too good to be true, Phil took up this practice with gusto.

Every two weeks or so, the team of managers met for about 75 minutes at lunch time. Phil knew that he had to make the meetings fun or people would stop coming.

The meetings were a success, so much so that the team met regularly for two years. Then Phil started another group with his peer managers, and suddenly a third group took off. Like a domino effect other managers started groups with their teams.

Why did it work so well?

This simple idea was a huge hit because it proved to Phil and his team that there was another way to develop yourself as a manager, while bonding as a team. It's based on Reg Revans' work with action learning sets, but what makes it different is that a suite of topics for discussion and the content to support them are provided.

All the while, Phil and Henry collaborated on content creation for the sessions to ensure that there were enough relevant topics to discuss in each of the meetings. Henry had found through his years of research and teaching management development that the best social learning took place when managers discussed relevant topics in light of stimulating questions.

Each session was based around a topic ranging from negotiation skills, to figuring out the balance sheet, to discovering your management style. The topics were initially curated by Phil based on Henry's work in the field.

From there things really took off. What made these sessions so effective is that each person at the meeting took action based on their findings after the meeting. There were action steps to follow up, and the meetings weren't just a place to vent, they actually made things happen and helped managers get stuff done.

This approach to management development through peer learning was such a transformative experience that it became a company called CoachingOurselves, set up by Phil and Henry together with their colleagues Sasha Sadilova and Jonathan Gosling, who contributed topics for the sessions and helped form the vision for the company.

Today, CoachingOurselves covers more than 70 topics created by well known authors in management and business.Topics include:

  • Silos and slabs in organisations
  • Developing our organisation as a community
  • High performance teams.

There are even topics for taboo subjects that aren't often covered in development programmes, such as bullying or political games.

There are thousands of managers across the world using CoachingOurselves in their teams to discuss management issues and grow together. Groups of five to seven managers download the most relevant topic for their current management challenges, then discuss their situations guided by the topic.

The concept is so simple that it doesn't require any facilitators, consultants, or third parties. Teams are totally self sufficient, and this is the most cost effective way to get the results that companies need even without a big budget.

There are several case studies of companies taking on the CoachingOurselves challenge to explore peer learning. For example, Syngenta is a world-leading agri-business committed to sustainable agriculture via technology and has over 100 managers participating in their CoachingOurselves initiative. They've already reported benefits in team building and development along the way. Here's what Rob Neill, Head of Global Marketing at Syngenta Crop Protection had to say about Coaching Ourselves:

'We structure a CoachingOurselves breakfast session ahead of each regular management team meeting. It's consistently turned out to be one of the most valuable parts of the day. The team really enjoys the opportunity to step outside of the demands of the regular business, even if it's only for 90 minutes. There's enough diversity in the topics that we can always find a subject that is relevant to what we're doing in the real world. CO has also helped develop us a lot better as a team.'

In conclusion, CoachingOurselves is one option for organisations looking to support managers through these challenging times.

Further reading

Books and articles by Henry Mintzberg

Managing. London: FT Prentice-Hall, 2009

Managers not MBAs. Berrett-Koehler, 2004

Please see our Management Thinkers article about Henry Mintzberg's life and work for a full list.

Websites

CoachingOurselves website
http://www.CoachingOurselves.com

Henry Mintzberg's website
www.henrymintzberg.com

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