Henry Mintzberg about some Half-Truths of Management

Henry Mintzberg about some Half-Truths of Management

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Henry Mintzberg

“There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths” (Alfred North Whitehead). So here are a few in management.

WE LIVE IN TIMES OF GREAT CHANGE

Have you heard this before—say in the last hour? Did you know that when a laptop detects a CEO about to type a speech, it automatically enters: “We live in times of great change.”  Why bother the CEO to type it again, since just about every management speech in the past few decades has begun with this line. That never changes.

Do we really live in times of great change? Look around and tell me what’s changed fundamentally. Your food, your furniture, your friends, your fixations? Are you wearing a tie, or high heels? How come: because you always have? How about your car? Under the hood is probably a four-cycle, internal combustion engine. That was in the Model T Ford.

When you got dressed this morning, did you say to yourself: “If we live in times of great change, how come we are still buttoning buttons?” (from Wikipedia: “Functional buttons with buttonholes for fastening or closing clothes appeared first in Germany in the 13th century”.)

What’s my point? That we only notice what is changing, and most things are not. Of course, some things are changing: information technology, most notably. Zap, I hit a few keys and Wikipedia tells me about buttons. I hope you have taken notice of this new technology, because it is rendering great changes.  But I hope that you are also taking notice of all the things that are not changing, because they are no less important. Managing change without managing continuity is anarchy.

THE WORLD IS BECOMING MORE GLOBAL

Often, when I work with groups of managers in various parts of the world, I ask them whose businesses have more than half their sales outside the home country. You would be surprised how few do. (If a quintessentially global company like General Electric has about half its sales in the United States, then it is better described as a quintessentially American company.)  Think of how much retailing, banking, food, and so on, is local. On the other hand, more than a century ago, Singer sewing machines were sold as globally as are Apple phones today.

The fact of the matter is that some businesses have long been global, and a great many remain local.

MANAGEMENT SITS ON TOP

Of what? The pay scale, to be sure, and probably the headquarters building too. But mostly on top of that ubiquitous chart. So what? If, as CEO, you see yourself on top of your organization, does that help you keep on top of what is going on in your organization? No. This top is the worst place to manage an organization: looking down on everybody else. Try the ground instead.  Don’t we have enough disconnected managing already?

FROM THIS TOP COMES DECISIONS AND STRATEGIES FOR EVERYONE ELSE TO IMPLEMENT

IKEA has a terrific strategy: selling unassembled furniture so that we can take it home in our cars, which saves us and the company lots of money. According to IKEA’s own website, this idea came from the ground. A worker tried to put a table in his car, and it didn’t fit, so he took off the legs. Then came the key insight that eventually changed the strategy, and the industry: “If we have to take the legs off, don’t our customers do too?” Who asked that: a CEO on top?

Of course, key to this becoming strategic was a company culture that enabled this idea to get to the CEO, to sprinkle holy water upon it. But I’ll bet this particular CEO, like most successful entrepreneurs, spent lots of time at the bottom finding out what was going on.

Thus: from everywhere, “implementation” included, come little insights that can emerge into big strategies.

ORGANIZATIONS NEED HEROIC LEADERS

Really? How often have heroic leaders ridden into established organizations on great white horses, only to fall into black holes? New organizations may need aggressive leadership, but most others need engaged management—quiet, humble, thoughtful. Enough narcissism in the executive suites.

PEOPLE ARE HUMAN RESOURCES

Not me! Feel free to let yourself be called a human resource. I am a human being, thank you. Not even a human asset, let alone human capital. Enough of the demeaning vocabulary of economics—turning us all into things. Resources are things we throw away when we no longer need them. Is that how to build a great enterprise: by throwing away the human beings? (It’s politely called “downsizing”.) Airlines used to refer to passengers as “self-loading cargo.” Are the HR words really any better?

IF YOU CAN’T MEASURE IT, YOU CAN’T MANAGE IT

This is just plain silly.  If you can’t measure it, you had better manage it. And if you can measure it, you had better manage it even more carefully. Think of all that matters in management—and in life—that is tough to measure: culture, engagement, leadership, the market for a truly novel product (who ever got that right?), even management itself. And tell me, did anyone who uttered this nonsense ever even try to measure the performance of measurement, instead of assuming it is wonderful? I guess, then, that we shall have to get rid of management and measurement too, not to mention truly new products.

I could go on, since too much management goes on and on with its half-truths. Instead I’ll just quote Winston Churchill, that human being who lived in times of greater change than most of us can possibly imagine:

“[People] occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.”

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ManageMagazine would like to thank Henry Mintzberg for these great words. The article was originally published on Henry Mintzberg’s Blog the 22nd of March 2017.

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I currently hold the Cleghorn Professorship of Management Studies at McGill University; the Desautels Faculty of Management. I've been an academic most of my working life. I devote myself largely to writing and research, over the years especially about managerial work, strategy formation, and forms of organizing. In recent years, I have shifted toward more general writing, including commentaries. In all, I have published about 170 articles, and 17 books.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Nice one.
    I particularly like the first, and since you finish with a Churchill quotation, consider the change that happened in that era – Britain and Germany started WW2 in 1939 with string and canvas biplanes in front line combat service and ended the war five and a half years later with jet fighters in front line service. The same five and a half year period gave us guidance systems, missiles, nuclear weapons and computers. I think you’d have to work really hard to argue that there has been a comparable level of breakthrough advance in the 70 years since. So maybe we’re currently running at around 10% of that level of technological change? To be sure, there is now tons of innovation and change that is built on those breakthroughs, but relatively little that’s genuinely novel.

  2. This is what those of us of a semitic persuasion, whose grandparents are of sufficient age, will call this “tzeichel” – that aspect of common sense that verges on wisdom.

    One of the reasons why the trope of “times of great change” comes up is the desire of those eager to rise in the management ranks to invalidate whatever came before. If we *don’t* live in “times of great change”, then I as manager have nothing particularly unique to add. Being un-unique means I have less market value. So my best move, as eager ladder-climber is to declare, as often as possible that nothing that came before me really matters anymore, because, y’know, “things” have changed so much.

    Read up on Margaret Mead’s notion of pre-figurative and post-figurative cultures. In her case, she theorized about shifts in the social value of individuals from older or younger generations as a function of *actual* cultural change or stability. Within the world of management culture, the value of different generations is pushed/driven by the creation of an artificial sense of culture change for instrumental reasons.

  3. Very good insights from Prof Mintzberg (probably the only management thinker that I can’t disagree with). In some sense things do change all the time: kids leave the house, we learn new things, we buy new cars, etc etc. Much of the change we experience is fairly predictable, perhaps even necessary and desirable. Unfortunately, some management thinkers (many with no skin in the game) have taken it to a different realm: mainly to justify their actions. It reminds me when I was visiting our ‘sister’ organisation (since our organisation apparently was a ‘family’) and happened to witness the CEO giving her speech to all staff. It was about change (think downsizing) and she did not fail me to use the famous expression “the only thing that remains constant is change”. It struck me that this change she was referring to never affected herself or those close to her (in charge of change) but only those inconvenient to keep in the organisation. It appears that change is not only a construct but convenient tool in managerial arsenal.

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