Blog: What I really think

Sweet dreams can be made of this

5 February 2019

Today’s the day: my new book is officially out!!  Bedtime Stories for Managers, created from these blogs. Here, exclusive to you (aside from the millions of enthralled readers-to-be), is the introduction to the book:

Good evening…

Offline? Excellent. Welcome to Bedtime Stories for Managers, a playful book with a serious message: management has to come down from lofty leadership, to grounded engagement. How so? By organizing like a cow instead of a chart…so that strategies can grow like weeds in a garden…as extraordinary ideas come from ordinary people…who are distinctively worldly instead of cookie-cutter global.

Today’s the day: my new book is officially out!!  Bedtime Stories for Managers, created from these blogs. Here, exclusive to you (aside from the millions of enthralled readers-to-be), is the introduction to the book:

Good evening…

Offline? Excellent. Welcome to Bedtime Stories for Managers, a playful book with a serious message: management has to come down from lofty leadership, to grounded engagement. How so? By organizing like a cow instead of a chart…so that strategies can grow like weeds in a garden…as extraordinary ideas come from ordinary people…who are distinctively worldly instead of cookie-cutter global.

The first story sets the tone, telling how the CEO of a failing airline sat in First Class while his customers in back had to eat what was called scrambled eggs. In a world as scrambled as ours, managers have to eat those eggs.

A few years ago, I began a blog (mintzberg.org/blog) to capture a lifetime of ideas buried in obscure publications. Then I came across a book of stories for the fans of the Montreal hockey team, 101 in all. Perfect bedtime reading!—a little story or two before dozing off. Why not a book of blogs for managers? What better time than now, by which I mean bedtime, after the managing has stopped—if it ever does.

Consider the organizations that you know and admire most:

  • Do they function as collections of human resources or as communities of human beings?
  • Does thinking always come first, or do they see first, and do first, in order to think better?
  • Do they measure like mad or serve with soul?
  • Must they be the best, or do their best?

If you opted for the first set of answers, read this book to discover the second. If you opted for the second set of answers, read this book to cope with those who opted for the first.

From more than 101 blogs, I selected 42 that seem to speak most meaningfully to managers. Books, I am told, need chapters, so I organized these under headings like managing, organizing, analyzing, and so on. I am also told that chapters need introductions, to tell you what the writer is going to tell you. Here I drew the line: no introductions. I prefer that you discover these stories for yourself in whatever order you prefer. I do ask that you read the first story first and the last story last, but otherwise feel free to peruse at random—as good managers sometimes do.

As you turn the pages, I’d like you to wonder what in the world is coming next. I’ll give you a hint: a medley of metaphors. Beside cows and gardens, cutting cookies and scrambling eggs, get ready for the maestro myth of managing, the soft underbelly of hard data, the board as bee, and downsizing as bloodletting. Just try not to be outraged by anything you read because some of my most outrageous ideas turn out to be my best. They just take time to become obvious.

This may be a book about managing, but don’t expect any magic bullets. I leave those to the books that compound the problem. Instead expect unexpected insights to sleep on so that you can rise and shine and, after eating some properly scrambled eggs, charge out to unscramble the messes of managing. You, your colleagues, even your family might just live a little more happily ever after.

Sweet dreams!

© Henry Mintzberg 2019. If you insist on ordering the book, so that you can finally have a good night’s sleep, please click here…quietly.

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...about listening

1 March 2018

I write a good deal about the disconnect of leaders/managers from the ongoing activities of their organizations. An organization can’t be run by remote control: people “on top” have to get on the ground to see what is going on. And, no less, to hear what is happening.

I write a good deal about the disconnect of leaders/managers from the ongoing activities of their organizations. An organization can’t be run by remote control: people “on top” have to get on the ground to see what is going on. And, no less, to hear what is happening.

Let me give you an example from the thin air. I am doing a collection of my blogs, using the title “Managing Scrambled Eggs” because the first story is about the CEO of a failing airline who sat in First Class while the passengers in the back had to eat some excuse for scrambled eggs. I was one of them, and when I asked the flight attendant why they served this stuff, she said: “I know, we keep telling them; they won’t listen.“ How can that be?  If they were running a cemetery, I might understand not listening to the customers. But an airline? Feasting in First Class is not leadership, let alone management. Among the most important qualities of managers who truly lead is a captivating capacity to listen, really listen.

In my book Managing the Myths of Health Care, I cite a study of patients who were explaining their problems to physicians: on average, they were interrupted after 23 seconds1… and rarely had a chance to continue! Modern medicine makes a thing about being evidence-based. Sure, evidence is important, as the collected experiences of many people. But how about the particular experience of the person right there? If medicine had to rely solely on evidence, without tangible experience, it would shut down. Evidence puts numbers on abstracted experience; listening to someone’s full message brings out what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “thick description.” We need this to understand what is happening, beyond just putting people into pat categories.

How about this example of the difference between evidence and experience, from my own experience, and probably yours too in one way or another. If you go biking in the mountains, say up to a pass and back down, you will have done four times as much uphill as downhill. Everyone I tell this to is puzzled:  Haven’t I gone exactly the same distance up as down? Sure, but we don’t experience distance, we experience time. Distance is an abstract calculation in our brain; time is what we feel in our body We may boast about having done so many kilometers, but while doing them, believe me, what we are acutely aware of is the effort, across the hours, not the kilometers. When we are living an experience, it’s not the numbers that count but the feeling—what our body is telling us. Listen to it too!

How often have we heard that “Gerry just doesn’t listen” or that “Sally is such a good listener!” By listening to others, we get in touch with them, and thus with ourselves. So let’s spend more time listening to what really matters: listening to our partners, to our children, to our friends, to our patients, to our employees, to our managers, to ourselves, and especially to our bodies.

© Henry Mintzberg 2018, who can be listened to on mintzberg.org/videos.

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1Marvel, M., R. Epstein, K. Flowers, and H. Beckman. (1999). Soliciting the Patient’s Agenda: Have We Improved?  JAMA  281(3): 283-287.

The truth about Truth

5 May 2016

Last week I raised the issue of truth, concerning my comments about orchestra conductors. In early 2015 I did a blog about truth, which is revisited this week, with some editing.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered truth: that the world is round, not flat. Did he? Is it?

Not long after that, in 1535, Jacque Cartier crossed the same ocean and sailed way up a mighty river, until he had to stop at an island just short of the first rapids. There he saw a mountain, which was later named Mont Royal, for the king of France. Now, almost half a millennium later, my office in Montreal faces that mountain. Have a look at the photo below; it offers definitive proof that the world is neither round nor flat.

Last week I raised the issue of truth, concerning my comments about orchestra conductors. In early 2015 I did a blog about truth, which is revisited this week, with some editing.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered truth: that the world is round, not flat. Did he? Is it?

Not long after that, in 1535, Jacque Cartier crossed the same ocean and sailed way up a mighty river, until he had to stop at an island just short of the first rapids. There he saw a mountain, which was later named Mont Royal, for the king of France. Now, almost half a millennium later, my office in Montreal faces that mountain. Have a look at the photo below; it offers definitive proof that the world is neither round nor flat.

Mount Royal from my Montreal office. Sorry about what Santa, my assistant, calls our stained glass windows. They are not cleaned in the winter.

Why must I tell you this? Because we have to appreciate that while facts may be true—that mountain is there—theories are not. How can they be when they are just generalizations, namely words and symbols on paper or screen, not reality itself?

Theories can, however, be useful, or not, depending on the circumstances. The flat earth theory is still quite useful for building football fields in Holland.  (Can you imagine an engineer saying: “Please raise one end a millimeter or two to correct for the curvature of the earth”?) But when it comes to sailing ships, the round earth theory works much better (even though the earth is not round—it bulges at the equator—although what to do with the oblong theory of the earth I do not know). And anyone who likes to climb mountains has to be a fan of the bumpy earth theory (although I heard somewhere that if we reduced the size of the earth to a billiard ball, we would not be able to feel Mount Everest).

Many proper scientists just don’t get it. They fight with each other furiously over their respective theories, without recognizing that all may be right, and wrong, depending on the circumstances. Don’t we still make greater use of Newton’s theory of mechanics, which was supposedly debunked by Einstein’s theory of relativity? It has been much the same with those economists who poo-pooed Keynesian theory for years, only to rediscover it during the recent financial crisis.

There has been concern of late about the measles vaccine: by failing to have their children inoculated, parents are being accused—rightly—of putting other children at risk. To convince these parents, proper scientists and physicians have been announcing that the vaccine has been proved safe. This is not true, nor is it proper science, which can disprove beliefs but never quite prove them.1 The truth is, so to speak, that the tests have not found the vaccine to be harmful, so far. If you doubt the difference between these two wordings, consider all the medical treatments that were declared safe only to be later declared unsafe. Science marches on, unpredictably.

So beware of any claims about truth in theory, including those that I have advanced furiously in these TWOGs. But do check out the claims about their usefulness, while keeping your mind open for the next theory that comes along. As D.O. Hebb, the great psychologist, put it: “A good theory is one that holds together long enough to get you to a better theory.” (He worked at McGill, and probably looked out at the same mountain—unchanged.)

© Henry Mintzberg 2015/6   Photo © Lisa Mintzberg Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing here. I also just started a new Facebook page.


1 Karl Popper wrote a famous book entitled The Logic of Scientific Discovery, which was not about the discovery of theories—the interesting part—but about the falsification of them. Another assistant of mine once typed his name as Karl Propper.

Some quotes about Truth:

“There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths.” (A.N. Whitehead)

“Add a few drops of malice to a half-truth and you have an absolute truth.” (Eric Hoffer)

“Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.” (Andre Gide)

“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” (Niels Bohr)

“All astrologers are liars. Even when an astrologer tells the truth, he is lying.” (proverb)