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Management guru Henry Mintzberg
by Tema Frank
Beware of management gurus, warns Canadian management guru Dr. Henry Mintzberg. While they seem to offer answers, the techniques they push are really just straws at which insecure managers can grasp.
Formal management planning never works, insists Dr. Mintzberg, an award winning management expert who splits his time between  Montreal's McGill University and the INSEAD -- a graduate business school considered by many as the “Harvard of Europe” -- in France.
Staff often get blamed for poor implementation or resistance to change, but in fact the whole notion of strategic planning is flawed, he argues. Corporate planning exercises take months or years. But the world won't hold still while the “suits” develop and try to implement master plans.  Those “inflexible” employees down below probably have a better grip on reality than the corporate planners and senior executives, argues Dr. Mintzberg. Human resources staff should to try to shape a corporate culture that will improve the links between the two.  
The key to effective management is not elaborate systems, but “managing quietly: less hype and more connection”, says Dr. Mintzberg. It's a concept that should be a natural for today's HR managers.
Unlike “empowerment”, which seems to come “as a gift from the gods”, managing quietly simply helps people who know their business get on with the job. It is about low-key encouragement, and removing obstacles to getting things done.
 And it is crucial in today's fast-changing world. Planning for the future is a waste of time, argues Dr. Mintzberg.
“Nobody ever gets it right. Prediction is the extrapolation of trends. If you are an optimist, you extrapolate what you like. If you are a pessimist, you extrapolate what you don't like. You can't predict the future, so the best thing is to create it. If you can't do that, then react quickly as the world unfolds.”
     By way of example, in his latest book, Strategy Safari (The Free Press, 1998), he cites Honda's entry into the American motorcycle market. The Boston Consulting Group argued that Honda had a carefully planned strategy of using low-cost Japanese production to sell cheap motorcycles to the masses. But in fact there was no strategy “other than the idea of seeing if we could sell something in the United States,” according to the managers who were responsible for Honda's successful entry into the US.

     First Honda tried to sell big powerful motorcycles to the black leather set, but their bikes couldn't cope with the heavy use they got from American riders. Meanwhile, the two young Honda employees who had holed up in a Los Angeles flat for the US launch found that people kept commenting on the small motorbikes they used to get around town. Despite fears that small bikes would destroy their macho image with core buyers, Honda decided in desperation to try selling them when the big ones kept breaking down. Within six years Honda had captured 63 percent of a much-expanded American motorcycle market.

HR practitioners can help create the responsive organizations Dr. Mintzberg calls for in several ways. First, they must identify the right sort of people for leadership positions. Dr. Mintzberg is appalled by the “cult of leadership” that parachutes big-name senior executives from one industry to another in the hopes of quick fixes, rather than developing and promoting people who know their business intimately. He believes there's a basic conflict between boards of directors (and stock market analysts), who are disconnected from the business and want grand, fast strategies, and the reality that business strategy emerges from day-to-day experiences and interactions with clients. Successful strategy cannot be imposed by senior management; it must evolve.

Too often, he says, leaders get credit for accomplishments that are not really theirs. IBM competes successfully against Apple computers because of IBM's enormous market power, not because of superior systems or leadership, argues Dr. Mintzberg.

     “It doesn't take a genius. Let's take Lou Gerstner, who's run IBM for the last 10 years or so, and now let him run Apple for 10 years. Then we'll find out how good he really is!”

HR should identify and promote people who manage quietly and who really know the business.
A second focus for HR practitioners should be shaping a culture that encourages collaboration. In an article on collaboration Dr. Mintzberg offers the following advice:
People often don't even realize that they are learning from each other, so don't get too formal in collaboration systems. Enforced collaboration is not effective collaboration. Instead, have a loose structure that encourages a lot of informal interaction.
     Canadian staff social events, for example, are often either stiff, unnatural gatherings where people cling those they already know (like the annual Christmas party), or only attract a few employees (such as the baseball team). At the Institut Francais du Petrol, in France, by contrast, an employee committee plans a variety of subsidized activities for staff. These can range from a four-day cultural tour of Rome to a ski week in the Alps; a day at the Louvre museum to a day at Disneyland Paris. Each attracts a different sort of person, and subsidies vary with income so the events are affordable to all. The result is that employees mix across levels and departments with others who have common interests. Natural contacts and friendships form, breaking down corporate boundaries.
Formal collaboration is best if it takes place at the site of the issue at hand. Meet in the forest to discuss logging, on the shop floor to discuss production problems, in the lab to discuss research, etc. Don't meet in meeting rooms.
Trust that people in teams will learn what they need to learn. Avoid excessive formality in reporting systems.
Recognize that barriers to horizontal collaboration may be vertical. Your boss may distrust the information you've learned informally from a colleague in another department, and may not want you to share what you know. Fight this with corporate culture change, turning suspicious superiors into a minority.
HR managers should also help create a culture that encourages creative action on the part of employees at all levels, and fast, multi-directional lines of communication. This means that large companies must “act like small companies... break themselves up into small pieces, build a culture where people can talk to each other, where communication is real quick. Much quicker than it can ever flow electronically,” says Dr. Mintzberg. Information “is dead by the time it gets into the computer.”
Middle managers need to spend as much time “linking” (with people outside their authority and even outside their company) as “leading”. They need to meet with competitors and customers, as well as underlings and superiors.

“You get a lot richer learning by speaking to customers than by reading a sales report. I'm not saying you do one or the other, just that if you only read the report, you learn nothing... You have to speak to customers and say why didn't you buy last month? Why did you change your pattern?”

HR managers should also combat credentialism, especially the over-valuing of MBAs. Dr. Mintzberg refuses to teach MBA classes, convinced that MBA programs are seriously flawed. Most of their students have too little experience for the degree to teach them much beyond the jargon of management.

“MBAs give kids who have no knowledge and no experience the impression they know how to manage,” he complains. The two years experience required to get into many programs today are not enough. These students are not yet managers, and shouldn't be deluded into thinking they are.

Even MBA programs that recruit at more senior levels do a disservice, he believes. “We design the MBA for people who have no knowledge and no managerial experience and then we take people who have knowledge and who have managerial experience and we teach them exactly the same thing!”

To deal with the problems he sees in MBA programs, Dr. Mintzberg spearheaded the development of an International Masters in Practicing Management (IMPM) program (see sidebar). The IMPM, now onto its third cycle, brings together 40 managers from different countries who are felt by their employers to be on the brink of senior management. It incorporates the following elements, which Dr. Mintzberg believes are key to good management education:

It is truly international. Thus students benefit from the mind-opening experience of seeing problems from different cultural perspectives.
It incorporates real and timely company issues. Management programs should have students apply their learning immediately to their work.
It focuses on teaching how to think, rather than generic solutions to specific types of problems. Students should learn what questions to ask, and creative ways to approach them.

Frank McAuley, vice president of leadership effectiveness at the Royal Bank of Canada, believes that a key benefit of Dr. Mintzberg's programs is that they teach people to tolerate ambiguity and to be more reflective. Graduates, says Mr. McAuley, “become more thoughtful ... they slow down to speed up. They take more time up front to understand, which improves their effectiveness.”

While it may sound contradictory, a key part of what they learn is that strategy is a “random walk”, where you try something, evaluate, revise, and try again, in a never-ending cycle.

“Though it may be uncomfortable for corporations in terms of the structures we have now,” says Mr. McAuley, “it is much more reflective of where we're headed.... The world is changing so quickly that it's ideally suited. You have to be able to grow and adapt.”

This means, according to Dr. Mintzberg, that we should all just relax a little, try new things, not worry about messy desks, get our hands dirty, and learn as we go. Ultimately, believes Dr. Mintzberg, “it is the playful who will inherit the earth.”

Copyright Frank Communications, 1999