Author: Henry Mintzberg
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers (March 10, 2011)
The managerial class and its managing have long been severely criticized by contemporary scholars. Hayes and Abernathy's (1980) searing indictment was that the American manager had become a portfolio manager, with narrowed training and experience, often in finance or law, having no product allegiance, savvy, or imagination, and very myopic in vision. Nearly 20 years later, Koch and Godden (1996) analyzed the traditional work of managers (e.g., make important decisions, review and coordinate the work of others, collect and disseminate information, etc.) and concluded that they subtract rather than add value to their organizations. When the late Peter Drucker was told by Cloke and Goldsmith (2002) that they were writing a book on the end of management he simply responded "It is about time!" (p. 4).
Mintzberg, the eminent professor of management at McGill University does not fall into such a camp of critics (but I do). Although this book is not exactly the paean to management I started out thinking it would be, Mintzberg certainly is not calling for the end of management. Indeed, he thinks organizations are "over led and undermanaged" (p. 9). I totally disagree. Every member of the managerial class is one too many. Management should not mean, as it does to Mintzberg, an organizational position with an incumbent in it. Rather, management should exclusively mean a process of getting work done and, more precisely, getting work done by self-managing individuals in a lowerarchy, with everyone a performance manager and no one a member of any managerial class (Brumback, 2002).
His definition of a manager is very broad: "someone responsible for a whole organization or some identifiable part of it" (p. 12). I guess that takes care of the undermanaging problem he sees and also what he says is his incomprehension of the distinction between leaders and managers in everyday organizational life.
Before going further, I need to tell you about his methodology for collecting data that combined with his selective drawing on the literature and his speculative prowess are the meat of the book. During the 1990s, for one day each, he watched and talked to 29 managers who were at different managerial levels in Canadian business, government, health care, and social-sector organizations (e.g., the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra). He also reviewed their diaries, some covering up to a month's time. Mintzberg acknowledges the obvious: "This is not," he says, "a very fancy research method, but it worked for the purpose," that of seeking a "sense of their managing" (p. 239). His literature review is about as narrowly focused. It is not, he says, "terribly up to date" because that "can get in the way," putting us at risk of "being mesmerized by the present, and biased by the stories we 'know' all too well" (p. 13). He certainly didn't escape the bias in not citing the books I have cited here that are unflattering to the managerial class and its managing.
His approach, casualness, and defensiveness about it all flabbergasted me. I kept thinking "what would the late Cal Shartle, who masterminded the 10-year leadership studies at the Ohio State University and under whom I studied, have thought about Mintzberg's approach?" I wonder if Mintzberg would have felt at home with our version back then of "dust bowl empiricism." Of course he would have been a bit too young to have been there at that time.
He presents and refutes four "folklores" about managing. One of them is that it "is mostly about hierarchical relationships between a 'superior' and 'subordinates'" (p. 28), and he adds that "No one quite believes this statement" (p. 29; well, I for one certainly do).
He introduces in one long chapter his theoretical model of managing in his "search for a better theory" (p. 43). Under the chapter's title is a quotation to the effect that a good theory is good enough until a better one comes along. I do not know whether Mintzberg thinks his theory is the good enough one or the better one, but it does not matter. No theory is needed for the subject, and his theory as he explains and--moreover--illustrates it, smacks a trifle of professorial gibberish. I neither can nor want to digest it for you. There are just too many convoluted explanations and too many convoluted illustrations. All I will do here is give you his overview of the model, namely, that "managing takes place on three planes, from the conceptual to the concrete: with information, through people, and to action, directly" (p. 49, all emphases in the original).
In spending time with the 29 managers, Mintzberg was struck by "how varied this job can be" (p. 97). So he sets out in another chapter to "find order in the variety" (p. 97). To do so, he first identified from the literature variables that can cause variation such as "external context" (e.g., business sector), "organizational context" (e.g., classically bureaucratic), "personal context" (e.g., a manager's background), and so on. He then displays a large, two-page matrix showing how he has pegged the 29 managers on these variables. One of his conclusions from the matrix that he admits is "an impressionistic, personal assessment of what I saw" (p. 98) is that the form of the organization accounted, by far, for the most variation in the managers' jobs. How, I wondered, with all the untold varieties could there be one model, his model, to account for them all? But I was not up to seeing if his model, laid out as it is over 54 pages, could account for all the varieties, splayed out as they are over 60 pages.
"Managing," Mintzberg claims, "is rife with inescapable conundrums," (p. 157), 13 all-told that he identifies and makes the subject of another chapter. He divides them into the conundrums of thinking, information, people, and action, plus two overall conundrums. The first of the latter the "ultimate one" for any manager: How possibly "to cope with all these conundrums concurrently?" (p. 159). The second is Mintzberg's "own conundrum": "How can I reconcile that fact that, while all of these conundrums can be stated apart, they all seem to be the same" (p. 159). You perhaps can imagine how relieved I was to read that last sentence. It gets me off the hook for having to tell you more about any of them.
The last chapter on "managing effectively" is so different from the first five that it's almost as if Mintzberg had an epiphany or had an alter ego do some of the writing. This is an excellent chapter in many ways and enjoyable to read. He starts the chapter by saying that he "had a good time writing" it and conjectured that the "complexity led me to a kind of playfulness" about the whole matter (p. 195). His flare for prose and humor really shines in this chapter.
He seems to retreat in this chapter somewhat from his earlier more confident and expansive narrative about managers and managing. He implies that the best management book would be one all managers "have written from their own experiences" (p. 209). I do not think he is showing false modesty here about his own book. I think he really means it. In a similar vein he says "There is no Holy Grail of managerial effectiveness" (p. 219). What I liked best about this chapter was his criticism of formal management education, especially MBA programs, and reading about the experiential management development programs he and his colleagues have developed and offer at McGill. If we must have managers in a managerial class I wish all of them in their early careers would bypass formal management education programs and go through his programs after they have gotten their feet wet doing some managing.
If you want to get a "sense of managing" by 29 Canadian managers, a feel for his theory, or a look-see at the last chapter, then by all means pick up a copy of this book. Otherwise, this review ought to be enough.
Brumback, Gary B. Personnel Psychology. Spring2010, Vol. 63 Issue 1, p247-249.