Clearer Management Thinking

Thursday, September 1, 2011 - 08:14

Management should not be thought of as a science but as a practice, says management thinker Henry Mintzberg.

The best management style is one that comes naturally and fits with the context of the job, rather than a method pushed into conforming with academic fashion, according to leading management thinker Henry Mintzberg, who examines the area in his latest book Managing. "Effective management requires emotional health, clear-headedness, a genuine empathy for others and a good understanding of the field," he says.

"These attributes cannot really be taught in an academic way. Some of the best managers I have studied are hardly aware of management theory but simply do what they think is needed and what seems to work.

"Management is not a science or a profession, it's a practice, and really it doesn't change much. What changes is the content of what you're dealing with."

Mintzberg, currently the Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, is one of the heavy hitters of management thinking. Managing brings together much of the work that started with his 1973 classic The nature of managerial work and has continued with a steady stream of books and articles.

Day-to-day reality

Mintzberg believes that, nowadays, management does not receive the attention it deserves, having been replaced by studies of leadership. To rectify this, and to find out what managers actually do, he chose an interesting research method for Managing: shadowing 29 managers from a wide range of organisations for a day and then asking a series of questions.

What he found is a long way from the academic approach of many MBA courses. There is not much time for considered planning and strategic thinking; in fact, the day-to-day reality of management is a constant stream of minor crises, adjustments and interruptions. Information is collected, processed and passed back through conversations, casual meetings, and 'walking around'.

Formal instructions and neat memoranda play, in reality, only very small roles. Having to do a dozen tasks at once and making rushed decisions with imperfect data is not a sign of a flawed job: it is the job. And, in this sense, management is all about balancing conflicting imperatives.

Managers under pressure

In the book, Mintzberg provides plenty of evidence for how the trick is achieved, with stories about the work of, among others, a chief nurse, an orchestral conductor, a bank CEO, the head of an environmental group, a sales manager and a national park supervisor.

He is very aware of the pressures that managers currently face. In particular, Mintzberg believes email has become so ubiquitous that it constantly threatens information overload, putting too much pressure on managers and making the time frame for actions too short.

Mintzberg's observations have led him to the view that strategy is seldom made in the isolation of the boardroom or the CEO suite, but is more likely to grow out of initiatives from the middle-manager level in the course of everyday problem-solving.

"Look at the example of IKEA," he says. "At the very early stage of the company, some of the managers were trying to put a table into a truck, and found it hard to do until they took the legs off. They realised that a lot of other people probably had similar experiences, and the solution they came up with was to start selling furniture in pieces that could be easily assembled. That became the heart and soul of their strategy."

New thinking

Mintzberg's dissatisfaction with conventional MBA courses led him to rethink the way that management was taught. He believes giving the impression that the students have learned management and are prepared for leadership can encourage hubris. Moreover, it relies on learning from other people's experience, whether more directly in the discussion of cases or less directly in the presentation of theory.

As an alternative, Mintzberg and his team at McGill joined with other management educators - at Lancaster University in the UK, INSEAD in France, the Indian Institute of Management, and with a group in Japan - to create the International Masters Program in Practicing Management qualification in the mid 1990s. The course participants were practising managers who, according to Mintzberg, often contribute as much as they learn.

The course, which is widely regarded as successful and is often used as a model, is built around a family of practical programs, such as 'Adding management development to management education' and 'Combining organisational development with managerial development'. The aim was to turn management education from an academic process into one of natural growth.

Building community

"Management is really a pretty natural thing," Mintzberg says. "It's not supposed to be stressful. Perhaps we should be appreciating that reasonably normal people can simply get on with managing and leading, and be rather successful at it, if those above them are not constantly badgering them with performance reviews and irrelevant targets.

"We need to rethink management and organisation, as well as leadership and community, by realising how simple, natural and healthy they all can be," he says.

"Organisations are really communities of human beings, not collections of 'human resources'.

"That sense of community has been lost in many cases, largely because of successive waves of downsizing. The focus on leadership puts too much attention on particular individuals as opposed to the whole organism, especially when there are very large salaries and bonuses for a few at the top.

"That is entirely the wrong way round. Anyone who demands one of these [remuneration] packages is obviously demonstrating that they are not a team player and do not have the long-term interests of the company in mind," he says.

Mintzberg also makes the point that managers are fallible creatures, and any organisation that needs superhumans to run it is headed for trouble.

Some managerial jobs are designed too poorly to be doable, and in other cases a good person is simply the wrong fit. Even more, managerial success is extremely difficult to determine, no matter how many KPIs are grafted on to the process.

"Maybe the key message is: take it easy, and don't worry if the way your approach to the job doesn't fit into the theoretical business-school paradigm," says Mintzberg. "If you find the job satisfying, you're probably doing it right."