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IAN MANN REVIEWS: Bedtime stories for managers

Oct 14 2019 19:52

Bedtime Stories for Managers: Farewell to Lofty Leadership, Welcome Engaging Management, by Henry Mintzberg

The author Professor Henry Mintzberg has published about 170 academic papers and written 17 books. He teaches at McGill University in Montreal and is a distinguished scholar at many international universities and seminars. This book is a collection of stories and insights, all in digestible size, and all wise and challenging.

He scans a wide range of topics from which I have chosen only a handful.

Managers who really manage are essential to most companies, but choosing the right one is not easy. We know that everyone’s flaws come out sooner or later, so sooner must be better. Managers should be selected for their flaws as much as for their qualities, but we mistakenly focus on the qualities.

There are only two ways to know a person’s flaws: marry them or work for them. One prescription that could improve the practice of managing monumentally, is to hear from people who have been managed by the candidates.

Mintzberg has done a lot of research into strategy and five of his books focus on that topic. Here he presents his view in a few pages.

When in need of a strategy, most companies, organisations and SOEs opt for the ‘The Hothouse Model of Strategy Formulation’. The strategy team (in- or outsourced,) analyses the appropriate data so that the CEO can arrive at the strategy "through a controlled process of conscious thought, much as tomatoes are cultivated in a hothouse."

The strategy is immaculately conceived, and made explicit, much as ripe tomatoes are picked and sent to market. Then the strategy is implemented, the necessary budgets are set aside, and the organisational structure designed to provide the perfect context, the hothouse, for the strategy.

If after all this the strategy fails, then the fault must lie with people who were not smart enough to implement the CEO’s brilliant strategy. If they were, the carefully nurtured strategy would have flourished on schedule, and the market would rush over to buy the produce.

Unfortunately, business doesn’t work this way. Effective strategies will grow initially like weeds in a garden; not controlled like tomatoes in a hothouse. The process of working and learning, itself will have strategies emerge if the people are given the opportunity to come up with ideas that can evolve into a strategy.

"Productive strategists build gardens in fertile ground, where all kinds of ideas can take root and the best of them can grow."

Individual ideas become strategies when they circulate in the organisation. One team sees the other doing something interesting, and sales sees the opportunity, and soon the whole organisation has a new strategy.

Weeds can spread and cover a whole garden. A weed is only a plant that wasn’t expected. Just consider that Europeans put the leaves of dandelions in their salad. Dandelions are America’s most notorious weed.

This strategy approach doesn’t plan, but rather recognises strategy’s emergence and intervenes only when appropriate - a truly destructive weed must be uprooted immediately.

You can do a lot of strategy by forgetting the word and doing a lot more learning than planning.

Mintzberg introduces the term "communityship" that he believes should be more prominent in business than leadership. Effective organisations are communities of human beings and you can recognise this from the feel of the place, its energy, the commitment of its people, and their collective interest in what they do. They are much more than ‘empowered’, they are naturally engaged. They respect the organisation because it respects them.

This is not to say we don’t need leadership; we do – to enable and establish communityship in new organisations and sustain it in established ones.

Networks are not communities. Networks connect, but communities care. Not sure? Ask your network of Facebook friends to help paint your house…

Every organisation is different, but there are species of organisations just as there are species of mammals. Managing one well does not mean you even understand, let alone can manage another. Mintzberg addressed this problem in his book The Structuring of Organisations.

Four types emerge.

The ‘programmed machine’ organisation, is all about efficiency. Knowing how many seconds are required before a McDonald’s cook has to turn over a hamburger patty, makes training and consistency easier, even if it makes worker engagement harder.

The ‘professional assemblage’ is more about proficiency than efficiency. Entrance to these organisations requires years of training. These professionals who seem to be working in teams are usually working largely on their own. Their training has taught them exactly what to expect from one another. One of Mintzberg’s students observed a five-hour open heart operation during which the surgeon and the anaesthetist never talked to each other.

In the ‘personal enterprise’ one person dominates and is its directing centre. Steve Jobs at Apple or Muhammad Yunus, at the Grameen Bank are examples. When told to jump the response is "How high, sir?" Issue the same instruction in a hospital and the doctor asks, "Why?"

The ‘project pioneer’ organisation has experts who must work effectively in teams to produce through their combined efforts. Think film companies, advertising agencies, and research laboratories. Their effectiveness is achieved by being inefficient. Without some slack, innovation dies.

Given the vast differences in organisations, the measuring of managing is a "tricky task". There are lots of easy ways to assess managers, but "beware of them all!" Mintzberg cautions.

 The effectiveness of a manager can only be seen in context. The reality is that managers are not effective; matches are effective. He uses a very useful analogy to make this point: "There are not so much good husbands and good wives as good couples, likewise with good managers and their units."

Flaws you can accept in one company can be fatal in another. Skill at cutting costs in one company can bankrupt another. There are managers who fail in all managerial jobs, but there are none who can succeed in all of them.

To assess the effectiveness of a manager, you must factor in the effectiveness of the unit being managed, and the contribution of the manager to that effectiveness. Some units function well despite poor management, and others would be a lot worse if not for a strong manager.

Managers cannot be held automatically responsible for any success or failure of their unit: history matters; culture matters; markets matter; even weather matters.

This easy to read book is replete with profound insights that you will recognise as true, as well as many you will need to think through. If you are already thinking of year-end gifts for managers, keep this one on your list.

Readability        Light -+--- Serious

Insights              High +---- Low

Practical             High --+-- Low

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation and is the author of ‘Strategy that Works’ and ‘The Executive Update.’ Views expressed are his own.

strategy  |  management  |  leadership
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