Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.

Science, Technology
& Innovation

Managing Ourselves and Our Society: A Rebalancing Act An Interview with Prof Henry Mintzberg

think_10_04_featured-image-scaled

It has been many years since we worked together to start up an executive management programme in China. Has management education changed in the last 10 to 15 years? Has your view on management education changed?

Technology has changed, culture has changed, society has changed but business, organisations and management education have not changed much fundamentally.

 

I think the MBA is a design so established that it is hard to change. Fads came along — stakeholder values, social responsibilities and so on. We are still obsessed with leadership, but the more we are obsessed with leadership, the less of it we get. 

 

In 2000, Joseph Lampel and I studied the record of 19 Harvard Business School MBA graduates who were superstar CEOs in 1990. We found that 10 of them clearly had failed not long after 1990. The performance of another four appeared to be questionable. Only five appeared to have done well. A couple of other studies also found that MBAs did worse than non-MBAs as chief executives, but they were paid more.

 

MBA programmes are not a good way to learn management. They are effective in teaching certain functional skills, for example, finance and marketing. However, you simply cannot teach management to some 25-year-olds in a classroom using case studies. Management is like swimming; you have to be in the water and start to swim in order to learn. Similarly, you can only learn to be a manager by managing. 

 

I think the International Masters Programme for Managers (IMPM) we started is a more effective and logical way to train managers. Unfortunately, not many people have copied it because most schools thought it is too radical a change.

International Masters Program for Managers (IMPM)

Founded by Prof Mintzberg, IMPM has been ranked the #1 International Executive programme for five successive years from 2017 to 2021 by Eduniversal North America. IMPM boasts an innovative approach that focuses on impact in the organisation by designing its programme around managerial challenges instead of functional silos. It is taught by world-class faculty from five top management schools in five countries, and leverages the collective wisdom of a supportive community of diverse participants.

After so many years of the ‘manager vs leader’ debate, many workplaces are still being run by lofty leaders who don’t manage, and ‘kiss up and kick down’ managers who don’t lead. Shouldn’t we just give up and dismiss this as ‘human nature’? 

If I were thin-skinned, I would have given up a long time ago. The situation is getting worse and worse. I maintain that any chief executive who has to be paid hundreds of times as much as their workers is not a leader, period. That means almost no chief executives of major American corporations are leaders, and I believe that. So, are we incapable of changing? No. There are lots of people who are decent, who are doing good things. It’s the selection process and the training process. The conventional MBA should be recognised for what it is, which is training in business functions or business skills. It is not training in management. Nobody should be selected to manage simply because they have an MBA degree. 

 

In my book Bedtime Stories for Managers, there is a story about two nursing managers. The first manager ran her unit in the hospital with energy and enthusiasm in which people worked happily. Unfortunately, she was replaced by a mean-spirited MBA after she retired. In a few months, the place suffered such low morale that even the doctors tried to avoid it. 

“The conventional MBA should be recognised for what it is, which is training in business functions or business skills. It is not training in management. Nobody should be selected to manage simply because they have an MBA degree.”

I am not pessimistic about human nature. I am pessimistic about the forces of the status quo that won’t entertain a rethink of fundamental things. 

You coined the term Communityship in 2009 and described it as something that stands between individual leadership and collective citizenship, or something leadership should be embedded in. Teamwork is also about a group of people working together to achieve a common goal. What’s the difference between Communityship and teamwork? 

Well, teamwork is narrower. In a way, teamwork means communityship within a team. Communityship is a term I used for the whole organisation or the society. I think they are in the same spirit, but teamwork is about accomplishing projects, whereas communityship is about accomplishing the success of the whole organisation in the longer term. Teams are temporary by definition, but communities will stay on for a set of common and bigger goals. You need strong cohesion among teams for the good of the organisation. To me, having strong teams within a strong community is ideal. 

 

You said repeatedly in your books and articles that effective organisations are communities of human beings, not collections of human resources. What are the differences between the two? What gives rise to these different attitudes? 

First of all, I hate the term ‘human resources’. To me, it demeans us. I’m not a thing, I’m not a resource, I’m not a human asset, I’m not human capital; I’m a person! Those are economic terms that are coldblooded and anti-human and we should get rid of them. What we want are resourceful human beings, not human beings as resources. When we don’t need a resource, we throw it away. If you start getting rid of human resources, the human beings who remain will be discouraged. 

The grounding of Boeing 737 Max

The fatal crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX aircrafts in 2018 and 2019, causing a total of 346 fatalities, called the company’s reputation into question. It is believed that after Boeing’s 1997 merger with aerospace giant McDonnell Douglas, the culture changed completely, gearing towards a more cut-throat culture devoted to keeping costs down and favouring upgrading older models at the expense of wholesale innovation. Photo: Alamy

Companies usually start as communities. They build up with an entrepreneurial spirit, they are proud of their workers, there is a sense of purpose, and they are almost like families. As they grow bigger, they get listed in the stock market and Bang! the technocrats take over, pressure comes from the analysts, and they are expected to keep growing. But if you keep pushing and pushing and pushing, you’ll run out of ideas to grow. When that happens, you’ll start to cheat or cut corners; you’ll stop R&D, you’ll get rid of maintenance, and you’ll fire workers. It’s plain destructive.

 

When Apple became the first company with a USD one trillion market value, the market asked, “What’s next?” the next day. Some banks in Canada got their employees to sell products they knew were bad for their customers because they were being squeezed to produce more shareholder value. They couldn’t do it honestly, so they did it dishonestly. Some companies could keep coming up with good products, like 3M for a long time, but not everyone can do that.

 

By the way, location matters, too. If you are in New York, for example, you get all the pressure while playing golf with the stock analysts. Look at Boeing. Boeing is a classic example of an organisation gone horribly wrong. Seattle is where all its energy is. It has all its engineering excellence, novelty and capacity. They moved their corporate headquarters to Chicago, and again to Washington after the 737 Max crisis. In other words, they are moving their management further away from the guts of their organisation. They have become a lobbying company instead of an aircraft company.

Trip to Suzhou

Prof Mintzberg visiting a classical garden in Suzhou when he was there to launch the Chinese Masters in Practising Management (CMPM) programme at Renmin University of China (中国人民大学) in May 2009. Photo: CD Liang

How have organisations changed post-COVID-19 in the so-called new normal?

The one thing that I’m aware of is remote working. On one hand, this is good because it makes things easier. You and I are talking now — I am sitting in my living room in Canada, and you are in your office in Singapore; I got on five minutes before and didn’t have to travel to Singapore to have this conversation. This is amazing! Sure, we could always have done that before COVID-19, but now we are more inclined to do it. I get a lot done when I work from home.

 

On the other hand, nobody ever bumped into somebody else by a coffee machine on Zoom. All that chatter, all that conversation, all that open-ended, loose communication is gone! So, despite its convenience and other benefits, Zoom has its drawback because it takes us away from our natural and spontaneous selves. Meetings on Zoom are scheduled. People no longer meet by chance and start to exchange views and good ideas. It is also hard to build trust with someone you have only met on the screen. 

Cyber Monday march on Amazon

Demonstrators left boxes with sad faces and protest signs outside Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ USD80 million penthouse on Cyber Monday, one of Amazon's biggest sales events of the year, in New York City on 2 December, 2019. Photo: Pacific Press Agency / Alamy Live News

THE ART-SCIENCE-CRAFT MANAGEMENT TRIANGLE

Prof Mintzberg created his art-craft-science triangle as a visual way of demonstrating his view that management is a practice, and that, to be effective, managers need to create a “dynamic balance” between the three elements of the triangle, which are art (ideas and vision), craft (learning from experience) and science (analysis of knowledge and data). This triangle can also be used as a tool to identify different management styles by looking at how combinations of the three categories might manifest themselves in managers. Source: https://www.changeboard.com/article-details/17105/where-do-you-sit-on-mintzberg-s-art-science-craft-triangle

“Organisations build up cobwebs of bureaucratic procedures that are excessive, and the pandemic gives us opportunities to streamline some of our processes.”

Incidentally, I think Amazon is making a big mistake right now by throwing open their warehouse to almost anybody. If you go onto Amazon to look for something, you’d see a whole list of very similar products, each repeated three or four times at different prices. They have lost control of it. Maybe they are so busy managing the technology that they are not thinking through the retailing side of it. I would switch in a minute if somebody else offers me the same logistics service. What I wish for is a Costco on Amazon. Costco thinks for me, Costco chooses for me, and it is absolutely reliable. It would present only one or two options of what I am looking for and they are often very good products. I would not hesitate to buy what Costco recommends to me because I know it is looking out for me. 

Seaching for beaver sculptures

In his free tme, Prof Mintzberg can be seen canoeing on Lac Castor (Lake Beaver in French) in search of beaver sculptures. Source: www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7My9mZUUVs

In hindsight, there are probably some lessons we can learn from how we handled the COVID-19 pandemic. What, in your view, are the most important management lessons COVID-19 had taught us?

When we introduced the IMPM programme at McGill University, it was a new pedagogy and a new programme. We had to go through 11 committees, and it took us a year. When COVID-19 came along, McGill University changed, not just one, but all its pedagogy in weeks so that the learning could go online. So, what COVID-19 teaches us is that we can make very radical changes very quickly if we want to or have to. Organisations build up cobwebs of bureaucratic procedures that are excessive, and the pandemic gives us opportunities to streamline some of our processes. It also lets us recognise that science could be blind when scientists are stuck in a certain paradigm.

 

Let me give you an example. I read in a study done early on in the pandemic that pollution is probably playing a major role in the transmission of COVID-19, and the virus could be carried further than two metres by polluted air in polluted places. I could not get that published. I could not even get through to a friend who worked in the middle of it all in the World Health Organization (WHO). There is not enough evidence, he said. A colleague at McGill who is an aerosol expert also resisted the thought of outdoor COVID-19 transmission through pollution; he is an indoor aerosol expert. And yet, almost everything I hypothesised in April 2020 turned out to be true. 

 

When we are stuck in a crisis where millions of people have died, I think we should ask ourselves ‘Why not?’ instead of ‘Why?’ because, as has been said, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We can’t wait for years for research evidence. Instead of just locking down the whole economy, maybe we could have locked down the polluting parts of it. We are so hooked on the status quo that we can’t see past it. We are afraid to let go of our dogmas. We now have an opportunity to do something about the pollution problem and the pandemic problem at the same time, and I hope the authorities can seize the opportunity.

 

In your book Rebalancing Society, you urged the public, private and social (plural) sectors to work together to fix today’s unbalanced society. If you are looking for people to lead and manage the efforts to rebalance society, what kinds of leaders and managers will you be looking for? What attributes should they have?

People whose minds are open. 

 

Frankly, I think rebalancing society is going to take off on the ground, not from leaders. When a black activist asked President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to support him, Roosevelt said ‘I want to support you. Now go out and make me do it!’. So, even for someone like Roosevelt who was so creative and open, there has to be a community, a ‘plural sector’ community, to initiate things on the ground. Just like the Reformation — Martin Luther was just an ordinary monk, but he changed the whole religion. It’s people on the ground who get the ‘leaders’ to act. 

 

There is a YouTube video about a guy dancing in the park. You should watch it. Just go on YouTube and search ‘leadership dancing in park’. You’ll see in the three-minute video the role of the first follower, and how leadership actually works in reality.

 

PATHWAY TO BALANCE

Prof Mintzberg advocates a grounded reformation to make our way to a dynamic balance. Reformation requires communityship in the form of local initiatives that consolidate into a global movement. Source: https://rebalancingsociety.org/ii-the-pathway-to-dynamic-balance

You said you are focusing your attention on helping to wake up the world to the implications of an unbalanced society. Can you tell us what you’re working on specifically?

That’s the RebalancingSociety.org website. There are tons of stuff on there. There’s a table to help you decide whether you want to act as a business, in government, in a community, or as an individual on your own. When you click on a dot on the table, you will see examples of how you can potentially play a role. I tried to make a comprehensive list of roles people can play in taking meaningful actions to rebalance their society. There’s also a page where people can sign The Declaration of our Interdependence — ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created dependent — on each other, our earth, and its climate…’. You can get a sense of it in five to 10 minutes, after which you can spend hours on it.

 

All kinds of people from here and there have visited the website and got in touch with me. Young people are more inclined, no doubt. There is a lot of interest in Japan and Brazil, too.

Prof Mintzberg’s collection of beaver sculptures

Source: Canadian Geographic

Can you tell us what beaver sculptures are and why you collect them?

(While answering this question, Prof Mintzberg was walking around in the living room of his country home, showing us his vast collection of beaver sculptures using his phone camera.)

 

Some of these pieces are big, some are tiny. When beavers can’t find rocks to place at the base of their dams, they make rocks using logs. I have a stick outside, which is perfectly straight, and it is about 10 feet high. They had eaten all the bark but hadn’t cut the stick yet. Beaver sculptures are simply what beavers leave behind. I don’t take them off their dams or their lodges. I take them out of the water or off the land. 

 

Do you see that one up there? They wouldn’t put it on the dam until they had taken the branches off. Otherwise, they couldn’t drag it on. So, the interesting ones are not the ones they use in construction. The interesting ones are those they abandon for whatever reasons, and we find them everywhere. Here’s another example. I was paddling my canoe in the lake, and I bumped into something. I had no idea what it was, but I managed to tie a cord around it and dragged it back with my canoe. It must have weighed 100 pounds or more. I dragged it onto the shore, let it dry, and it kind of looks like a Henry Moore, doesn’t it? Beavers have strong teeth!

 

Why do I collect beaver sculptures? I just think they are beautiful. I picked one up from the water during a canoe trip many years ago, and I started my collection. I like them maybe also because beavers are busy engineers. Being an engineer myself, I guess I’m drawn to the idea of these very constructive and energetic animals building all these dams and lodges. Unlike driftwoods, which are artwork by nature, beaver sculptures are artwork by mammals. Imagine if I could have a show of beaver sculptures at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) one day because all the shows at MoMA are done by mammals. 

PROF HENRY MINTZBERG

Prof Henry Mintzberg is an author and educator on business and management. He is currently the John Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, Canada, where he has been teaching since 1968. He was also a Visiting Professor at INSEAD in France and the London Business School in England.

Throughout his career, Prof Mintzberg co-founded the International Masters Program for Managers (impm.org), the International Masters for Health Leadership and also a venture CoachingOurselves.com, all of which are novel initiatives for managers to learn together from their own experience. He also authored 20 books, including Managers not MBAs and Simply Managing, and published almost 200 articles, commentaries and videos.

Prof Mintzberg holds a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from McGill University, and a Masters and PhD from the MIT Sloan School of Management.

SEPTEMBER 2022 | ISSUE 10

Reorganising the Future of Work

About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

Join our mailing list

Stay updated on all the latest news and events

Join our mailing list

Stay updated on all the latest news and events