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Effective organizations like healthy families

15 January 2018

Tolstoy began his novel Anna Karenina with the immortal words “Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own particular way.” And so it may be with organizations: they have an unlimited variety of ways to fail, but perhaps only few by which to succeed. In the spirit of Tolstoy, I will not try to list all these ways to fail—blogs have their limits—but present a framework by which many seem to get it right.

Tolstoy began his novel Anna Karenina with the immortal words “Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own particular way.” And so it may be with organizations: they have an unlimited variety of ways to fail, but perhaps only few by which to succeed. In the spirit of Tolstoy, I will not try to list all these ways to fail—blogs have their limits—but present a framework by which many seem to get it right.

Lewis et al., in the introduction to their book No Single Thread: Psychological Health in Family Systems¹, comment that: “There is considerable literature on the pathological family types, but a ‘scarcity of data’ on the healthy family” (1976: xvii). When I read the book, I was struck by the parallels with a framework that I had already sketched out in my book Managing. I subsequently borrowed the word “thread”, and was able to find one or more quotes from their book that matched each of the characteristics that I had identified in effective organizations. 

So here comes, not a formula, not a theory, not a set of propositions, so much as a tapestry to appreciate effectiveness in organizations.  As shown in the figure, at the center are five threads, what we call managerial mindsets in our International Masters Program for Managers.²  They range from the more personal to the more social, and are labelled reflective, analytic, worldly, collaborative, and proactive. Two additional threads are shown: at the beginning that of being personally energetic, and at the end that of being socially integrative. Each thread is discussed in turn.

The Energetic Thread

“Although [effective] families differ in the degree of energy displayed, they all demonstrated more constructive reaching out than did patently dysfunctional families” (p. 208–209). Effective organizations may likewise differ in the energy they display, but perhaps not in their inclinations for constructive “reaching out.”

The Reflective Thread

“In approaching problems within the family, [the healthy ones] explored numerous options; if one approach did not work, they backed off and tried another. This was in contrast to many dysfunctional families in which a dogged perseverance with a single approach was noted” (p. 208). In my own experience, a remarkable number of effective organizations, and their managers, are reflective: they know how to learn from their own experience; they explore numerous options; and they back off when one doesn’t work, to try another. They are inclined to know what they know while appreciating what they don’t know.

As I noted in my book Managers not MBAs,  reflecting means “wondering, probing, analyzing, synthesizing, connecting—‘to ponder carefully and persistently [the] meaning [of an experience] to the self’.”³  This goes beyond sheer intelligence, to a deeper wisdom that enables people to be insightful—to see inside issues, beyond their obvious perceptions. Many of the people in effective organizations think and see for themselves.

The Analytic Thread

Too much attention to analysis can be dysfunctional in organizations, but so too can too little, leading to disorganization. Looking for the key to effectiveness in the light of analysis may be misguided, but expecting to find it in the obscurity of intuition is no more sensible. People have to know formally and explicitly as well as informally and tacitly. Lewis et al. describe the most dysfunctional families as presenting “chaotic structures” and what they call the midrange families as presenting “rigid structures,” while the “most competent families presented flexible structures” (p. 209).

The Worldly Thread

“There is another complex family variable that involves respect for one’s own world view as well as that of others” (p. 207). We hear a great deal these days about globalization, but not much about worldliness. To be global implies a certain conformity. Is this what we want from our managers?

Thinking for ourselves requires that we be worldly, which is defined in my dictionary as “experienced in life, sophisticated, practical.” An interesting mixture of words—and perhaps as close as a set of words can get to what many of us want from our organizations. (See my earlier blog on this.)

To be worldly means to get into the worlds of other people—other cultures, other organizations, even other functions within our own organization. To paraphrase a line by T. S. Eliot that has been overused for good reason, people should be exploring ceaselessly in order to return to where they started and know the place for the first time. This is the worldly mindset.

To appreciate other people’s worlds does not mean to invade their privacy, or “mind-read” them. Lewis et al. found these to be “destructive characteristics”, seen only in “the most severely dysfunctional families” (p. 213). In the midrange families, they found pressures for conformity. But in the healthy families, these researchers found what they called “respectful negotiation…. There was no tidal pull toward a family oneness that obliterates individual distinctions” (p. 211).

The Collaborative Thread

As we move along our tapestry, the social aspects of organizing become more prominent. Collaboration is not about motivating or empowering people, but about helping them to function together. “The trend toward an egalitarian marriage was in striking contrast to both the more distant (and disappointing) marriages of the adequate families and the marital pattern of dominance and submission that so often was seen in dysfunctional families” (p. 210).

Healthy organizations exhibit a sense of respecting, trusting, caring, and inspiring, not to mention listening. To draw more from the Lewis et al. book, “Healthy families were open in the expression of affect. The prevailing mood was one of warmth, and caring. There was a well-developed capacity for empathy” (p. 214).

These days, we hear a good deal about teams and task forces, networking and learning organizations, joint ventures and alliances. Many “subordinates” have become colleagues and many suppliers have become partners. All this requires a shift in managerial styles from controlling to collaborating, leading to linking, empowering to engaging.

The Proactive Thread

“There was little that was passive about healthy families. The family as a unit demonstrated high levels of initiative in responding to input” (Lewis et al., p. 208–209).

All managerial activity is sandwiched between reflection in the abstract and action on the ground—“refl’action” is a word coined by one of our IMPM participants. Nothing gets done when there is too much reflection, while things get done thoughtlessly when there is too much action.

I have saved this for last among the five mindsets because, while reflection can be largely personal, action in organizations is fundamentally social: it cannot happen without the involvement of various people. Managers who try to go it alone typically end up over-controlling—issuing orders and deeming performance in the hope that authority will ensure compliance. Effective managing is essentially a social process.

I use the term proactive rather than active to indicate that this thread is about seizing the initiative—launching action instead of just responding to what happens. Doers grab whatever degrees of freedom they can get and run vigorously with them. To quote Isaac Bashevis Singer in what could be the motto for the effective organization: “We have to believe in free will; we’ve got no choice.”

The Integrative Thread

Lewis et al.’s most important conclusion may be: “…health at the level of family was not a single thread… competence must be considered as a tapestry” (p. 206). Effective organizing is a tapestry woven of the threads of reflection, analysis, worldliness, collaboration, and proactiveness, all of it infused with personal energy and bonded by social integration. Effective organizations harness the “collective mind.”

© Henry Mintzberg 2018. Derived from passages in my books Managing and Simply Managing.

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¹Lewis, J.M., Beavers, W.R., Gossett, J.T., & Phillips, V.A. (1976). No Single Thread: Psychological Health in Family Systems. New York: Brunner/Mazel
²Gosling, J., & Mintzberg, H. (2003). Five Minds of a Manager. Harvard Business Review, 81(11), 54-63
³Mintzberg, H. (2004). Managers, Not MBAs: A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.  Citing Daudelin, M.W. (1996). Learning from Experience Through Reflection. Organizational Dynamics, 24(3), 41.

Going public with my puzzle

21 December 2017

I don’t like doing jig-saw puzzles and other games that come in a box. They Boggle my mind, Scrabble my brain. I prefer puzzles beyond boxes, including the box called “thinking outside the box.”

Recently, I joined some family in Toronto for a game that I was told I would love, as soon as I figured it out. I never did figure it out, perhaps because I never cared to figure it out. Look, I’m a word guy who goes blank in cross-word puzzles (although I delight in inventing words, like TWOG).

On a table, beside this game of ours, sat a jig-saw puzzle, its pieces strewn about near the box that showed what picture to make. Then and there it hit me. These games are too pat for me, too circumscribed, closed-ended. Choose the proper words or move the proper pieces while respecting the proper rules to make the proper picture. I want to fly with ideas, not be grounded by some rules.

I don’t like doing jig-saw puzzles and other games that come in a box. They Boggle my mind, Scrabble my brain. I prefer puzzles beyond boxes, including the box called “thinking outside the box.”

Recently, I joined some family in Toronto for a game that I was told I would love, as soon as I figured it out. I never did figure it out, perhaps because I never cared to figure it out. Look, I’m a word guy who goes blank in cross-word puzzles (although I delight in inventing words, like TWOG).

On a table, beside this game of ours, sat a jig-saw puzzle, its pieces strewn about near the box that showed what picture to make. Then and there it hit me. These games are too pat for me, too circumscribed, closed-ended. Choose the proper words or move the proper pieces while respecting the proper rules to make the proper picture. I want to fly with ideas, not be grounded by some rules.

So let’s call these pat puzzles, to compare them with another kind of puzzle, defined in my dictionary as “a difficult or confusing problem.” These we can call puzzling puzzles. They are not about breaking the rules so much as creating new rules to get around old rules are broken. To do this, we have to be playful rather than pat. Puzzling puzzles require solutions that are outrageous—until they turn out to be obvious.

In a pat puzzle (jig-saw):

1. The pieces are supplied.
2. Each is clean-cut.
3. They fit together perfectly
4.  To make the picture shown on the box.

(I took this photo of that table in Toronto.)

In a puzzling puzzle

1. The pieces have to be discovered, or created.
2. Each appears obscure, like a fragment.
3. They need to connect, although never neatly.
4. With no box in sight, the picture has to be constructed from these fragments and connections.

(I took this photo of my work table at home, exactly as I had left it earlier, while puzzling over this TWOG. Notice the fragments at the front, loosely connected.)

Pat solutions for puzzling problems?

Why are we so enamored with puzzles that are pat. Sure they can be fun, even useful for problems that are pat. But how about problems that are not? Pat solutions can no more resolve puzzling puzzles than can Monopoly develop entrepreneurs or chess model guerrilla warfare.

We used to play more open-ended puzzles at home. Remember charades—that was playful.  And how about LEGO? It used to let the kids build their own thing, instead of assembling 3-dimentional jig-saw puzzles. Here in Canada, kids used to learn hockey on some local pond. Now they are marched off to a designated arena where a designated coach teaches them the designated way to play. No wonder novelty has declined in professional hockey.

As for adults, look at how much of medicine, management, politics, and life has succumbed to pat programming. Get the patient or the problem into a category, a box where clean-cut pieces can be connected correctly. As a physician, diagnose that disease to apply the proper protocols. As a captain of industry, buy and sell businesses the way you bought and sold Monopoly hotels. In the affairs of state, treat diplomacy like a game of chess. And in life, find a partner on a dating site that lists categories of compatibility.

Some of this is fine when an existing category fits. Hail to those protocols and marriages that work. But problems fester when there is a misfit, or a forced fit, or no fit. A patient falls between the cracks of medical specialties. A merger or marriage proves incompatible beyond the categories. Diplomacy discovers that chess isn’t much of a model when faced with guerrila warfare.

Why do we have this propensity to use pat programming for puzzling problems? Sure, it’s easier. But just as surely, it’s fruitless. Has pat schooling killed our capacity for discovery? Or is it all those convenient apps we use on our phones?  Click and go—no novelty required. (Siri does the thinking.) Do we play too many games that come in e and cardboard boxes, or watch too many sitcoms on that big black box? Maybe we have simply become irrationally rational, thanks to centuries of privileging thinking over seeing and doing.

Our profound puzzle

Now we face a number of particularly difficult and confusing problems—puzzling puzzles that are foreboding, yet continue to fester. These include global warming, income disparities, and declining democracy. I see them as the fragments of a single profound puzzle, which in various TWOGs and a book I attribute to a basic imbalance in society. Narrow economic forces, encouraged by rampant individualism and unrestrained globalization, have been overwhelming our collective and communal needs as human beings. 

What can we do about this imbalance? We can start by putting seeing and doing ahead of thinking. We need a compelling image of what we are facing that can suggest concerted action, so that we can begin to think differently. This is the puzzle that engages me now: how to form that image—a comprehensive picture to see our way to a rebalanced society.

As I probe around—by meeting, reading, testing, tweeting—the fragments of ideas come at me, left and right, in no particular order. (I list some below—in a box of all things!) Imagine the image I am trying to construct as a map on which the fragments can be positioned and connected, to locate ourselves in the territory and construct possible routes to a better place.

Each new fragment contributes to the image that is forming in my mind. So please stay connected as I post the play of this profound puzzle.

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Some fragments for rebalancing society

Some of these fragments have been mentioned in TWOGs, as indicated; others are ideas in progress.

• Focusing corporate social responsibility on the causes of problems, not just their conditions (CSR 2.0)
• Liberating enterprises from the tyranny of the stock market
• Shifting production and consumption away from MORE, toward better
• Encouraging Indigenous development from the inside up
• Putting economic globalization in its place, namely the marketplace (forthcoming)
• Challenging illegitimate trade tribunals in national courts
• Building up the social economy
• Using progressive protests (1 hour longer each day) for impact
• Collaborating among prominent NGOs for common cause, beyond institutional causes
• Establishing a Peace Council (see pp. 92-93) for security instead of insecurity
• Developing a worldly strategy for the global climate (with Dror Etzion and Saku Mantere, submitted for publication)

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This last one may be the start of a map, with key roles of the three sectors located around a circle: grounded engagement in the plural sector, autonomous venturing in the private sector, and orchestrated planning in the public sector. The fragments listed above can be placed near each, but we conclude that real progress will depend, not on a collection of such efforts, but a consolidation of them around the circle.

© Henry Mintzberg 2017. My thanks to Dulcie and the gang, Dulcie for the idea of the map, Gavin and Lorraine for the puzzles, and David for explaining why there may now be less novelty in professional hockey.

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Please welcome CSR 2.0

7 December 2017

I address this especially to business executives, but as citizens of their societies and neighbors in their communities.

Why do we focus on the conditions of our problems instead of addressing their root causes? Medicine, for example, gives far greater attention to treating diseases than to preventing what caused them in the first place. Jonas Salk provided a telling exception: instead of treating polio, he created a vaccine to eradicate it.

0.0, 1.0, 2.0

I address this especially to business executives, but as citizens of their societies and neighbors in their communities.

Why do we focus on the conditions of our problems instead of addressing their root causes? Medicine, for example, gives far greater attention to treating diseases than to preventing what caused them in the first place. Jonas Salk provided a telling exception: instead of treating polio, he created a vaccine to eradicate it.

0.0, 1.0, 2.0

Much the same can be said about corporate social responsibility, or CSR. A corporation is considered responsible when it attends to the evident conditions of some social or environmental problem. But imagine how much more responsible it would be to address the underlying cause of that problem? Finding a new way to recycle waste may be good, but helping to reduce the generation of that waste is better. Not good, however, is Coca-Cola’s promotion of exercise programs for obese children, because its own products are a significant cause of that obesity. This, like greenwashing—pretending to be environmentally friendly—borders on what we can call Corporate Social Irresponsibility, or CSI.

We are inundated with CSI these days, some of it verging on the criminal—for example, banks that register customers for accounts they never requested or automobile companies that cheat on emission controls. And how about the massive private funding of American election campaigns This is a form of legal corruption tantamount to bribery.

Let’s label the irresponsible activities, CSI 0.0; the responsible attention to conditions, CSR 1.0; and the substantial addressing of cause, CSR 2.0. While we should be appreciating CSR 1.0 for its damage control, we should be welcoming CSR 2.0 for helping to reverse the damage. We need as much serious corporate social responsibility as we can get.

Imbalance as the root cause

I see imbalance in society as the root cause of many of our major problems, including global warming and income disparities. In my book Rebalancing Society, I trace the tipping point toward the current imbalance back to 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, signaling the end of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

Western pundits at the time declared that capitalism had triumphed, over communism. They were mistaken. Balance had triumphed, over imbalance. A healthy country balances the market forces of the private sector with the democratic needs of the public sector and the community concerns of the plural sector (“civil society”).  Those regimes of Eastern Europe were severely out of balance, on the side of their public sectors, while the successful countries of the West were better balanced across their three sectors.

Since 1989, however, there has been a marked decline in the health of many countries, most notably the United States. The country now faces alarmingly high rates of incarceration, obesity, income disparities, and drug taking, accompanied by, of all things, a sharp decline in social mobility (particularly the chances of poor children moving up the social ladder). All of this reflects the escalating imbalance in American society.

The mistaken belief that capitalism triumphed in 1989 has enabled capitalism to triumph since then, tilting the country toward the private sector. Think about the lop-sided lobbying that now overwhelms Congress, as a result of that legal bribery—most of it in favor of business interests. How ironic that the very problem of imbalance that brought down communism is now bringing down democracy.

In much of this, corporate America has hardly been an innocent bystander. This is most evident in the congressional lobbying, but also in the intensification of global warming by the promotion of fossil fuels as well as by the stock markets’ relentless demand for MORE. Likewise have income disparities been widened by the shift to contract work that has diminished workers’ wages while weakening their protections. And at the root of this has been the investor obsession with Shareholder Value, as if no other stakeholders, let alone basic human values, matter.

The business fix? 

Most of our major problems reduce to a single foreboding one: how to reverse the imbalance before it’s too late? There is widespread belief In America that if the country has a problem, business will have to fix it. Proponents of this fix point to private (so called win-win) ventures for example, that bring down the cost of windmills and solar panels. No doubt ”doing well by doing good” is beneficial. Not beneficial, however, are the many companies that do well by doing bad, or else do well by doing nothing. There is no win-win wonderland out there.

Now we see a whole spate of proposals for what can be called adjectival capitalism: Sustainable Capitalism, Caring Capitalism, Regenerative Capitalism, Inclusive Capitalism, Conscious Capitalism, Democratic Capitalism (this one with democracy as the adjective and capitalism as the noun!). All of this indicates the problem more than the solution.

Capitalism certainly needs fixing, especially the frenetic stock markets and the deplorable pursuit of Shareholder Value. But that will happen, not by capitalism getting itself right so much as by society getting capitalism into its rightful place, namely the marketplace. How did a word coined to describe the funding of private enterprises become the be all and end all of human existence? It is the balance in society that we need to get right, and that will not be done by business alone, or, for that matter, by government or community action alone.

Responsible Responses

What, then, can responsible businesses do? They can start by recognizing the role they may have played in creating these problems—if not deliberately, then as a byproduct of their economic activity—so that they can address their causes. Moreover, decent businesses will have to challenge the indecencies of other businesses, not least by supporting legislation intended to correct these indecencies.  Above all is the need for responsible businesses to engage in more collaboration with government organizations and community associations. Consequential solutions, especially for the problem of imbalance itself, will have to come from consolidating the capabilities of the major institutions of all three sectors: communities engage, governments legitimize, businesses invest.

Is the private sector prepared to recognize that it has too much power? Are many of us ready to temper our self-serving individualism for the sake of our collective and communal needs in society? Will international businesses and the international agencies so beholden to economic dogma acknowledge the social, political, and environmental downsides of globalization (to be discussed in a forthcoming TWOG)? History offers scant evidence of centers of power voluntarily relinquishing power. But these are no ordinary times, with the looming threat of global warming and the prevalence of nuclear weapons in a world of so many thugs in high office.

So, please, enough of business as usual, especially in the form of CSI 0.0. Beyond CSR 1.0, it is time for CSR 2.0—time for the citizens and neighbors who work in business to get serious about corporate social responsibility.

© Henry Mintzberg 2017. For more on this issue, see Part V (“Who Should Control the Corporation?”) of my book Power In and Around Organizations (out of print, but available for downloading at no cost, also in a summary article). This lays 8 positions around a horseshoe, from state control to full autonomy, with the CSR position in the middle (Chapter 20).

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