Blog: What I really think

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)

 

...about family business

4 February 2016

I am a fan of family business, if only it could resolve its problems of succession. I have suspicions about sons who follow their fathers into the business and even greater suspicions about fathers who insist that a son take over the helm. (I am writing from my personal experiences about this, which go way back, when mothers and daughters were rarely in the picture. I’ll get back to this below.) Family businesses need to cast their succession nets widely, but not into the stock market.

Following the father  My father was an entrepreneur, not a major one but successful enough. He built a business in the garment industry that kept us comfortable. I came out of the womb claiming I would never work for my father. So when the time came, I became an academic and he eventually sold the business.

I am a fan of family business, if only it could resolve its problems of succession. I have suspicions about sons who follow their fathers into the business and even greater suspicions about fathers who insist that a son take over the helm. (I am writing from my personal experiences about this, which go way back, when mothers and daughters were rarely in the picture. I’ll get back to this below.) Family businesses need to cast their succession nets widely, but not into the stock market.

Following the father  My father was an entrepreneur, not a major one but successful enough. He built a business in the garment industry that kept us comfortable. I came out of the womb claiming I would never work for my father. So when the time came, I became an academic and he eventually sold the business.

Many of the kids I grew up with were also raised in entrepreneurial families, but came out of their wombs differently. They went to work in their family businesses, almost automatically. A few did fine, and the occasional one grew the business substantially. But most either sustained the business for as long as they could or else dragged it down. And no few encountered rivalries with relatives and left the business, to settle into a life of investing whatever remained of their inheritances. All told, the record was not good: out of all the businesses I knew about when I grew up—some of them quite prominent—few remain.

The most prominent of all followed a well-known trajectory: the first generation makes it, the second generation sustains it, the third generation blows it. Sam Bronfman of Montreal built a fortune in whiskey (Distillers Seagrams); he was reputed to be the richest person in the world at one time. His son Edgar took the heart of the business to New York, where he sustained it until his son, the junior Sam, enamored of film-making, blew it in an ill-considered merger with a company called Vivendi.

Being born to a business genius, let alone inheriting the wealth of one, has never made anyone a business genius. Nor does it necessarily bestow the ingenuity and energy necessary to run a vibrant company. But being surrounded by sycophants well aware of the wealth has turned many an offspring into an arrogant failure. I do, however, have great respect for the real entrepreneurs, the ones who build and love their businesses.

Now here comes Fred. He contacted me out of the blue, to visit from Singapore and talk about management. When I discovered Fred to be the third generation head of the family’s big shipping company, I thought: Oh oh, not another one of those.

In good family fashion, Fred arrived with his daughter and brother as well as an assistant. As soon as I saw him, my impression changed: he didn’t look the third generation part. We hit it off immediately, dining, going off for cake, marching around to buy some of Montreal’s famous bagels. Fred’s a fun guy. We became friends. So what’s the story?

Fred too was determined not to work for his father. So as a young man he borrowed some money, went off to Malaysia, made his own money, and came back: to buy every one of the family businesses, one by one! That’s an entrepreneur!! Fred was not about to go through a whole process with his siblings, he told me, so in effect he bought them out—through his father.

Blame the father?  Now let’s consider succession from the other side. Why are so many clever entrepreneurs so dumb when it comes to succession? Why are they determined to pass the baton on to their own kids, usually a son? This is like playing Russian roulette with 5 bullets in the 6 cylinders.

A study some years ago suggested that entrepreneurs often develop in families with strong mothers and weak fathers—the latter ne’er-do-wells, or drunkards, or simply absent. This is certainly not always true, but it does seem to be rather common. Perhaps the son becomes the surrogate father at home, strong and responsible—not bad traits for an entrepreneur. So when I meet an entrepreneur intent on being succeeded by his son, I ask: “Was your father a great businessman?” Often not. “So what makes you think your son is?”

Casting the net widely  What I like about family business is the spirit that is often present, the soul of the place, and a certain respect for the customers and the employees. This is certainly not always true—some entrepreneurial firms are the worst in these regards—yet it is true often enough. But the question of succession has to be resolved, and these days the IPO (Initial Public Offering, on the stock market) is a lousy solution, at least if that spirit is to be carried forward. Surely we have enough mercenaries in stock markets running around killing decent company cultures. There can be something precious about a family legacy, for the family to be sure, but also for the economy.

Don’t get me wrong: there are sons who are natural successors—to sustain the legacy and grow the business—if only the fathers can distinguish the ones who truly are. Learning the business from a devoted parent can be a profound form of training. And increasingly these days, there are daughters who are natural and interested successors too, maybe more so because of a different relationship with their fathers. (For one thing, the fathers may be more inclined to listen to them! Does this suggest that sons may be the more natural successors to entrepreneurial mothers?!)

The net can also be cast wider. Cousins were significantly responsible for DuPont’s great success. They offer more choices for succession. And it was a son-in-law who made Marks and Spencer’s a great company. (Perhaps some daughters are inclined to marry a man in the fathers’ image.)

And how about family trusts for large firms, as have been created for Tata and Novo Nordisk? Both companies have shares listed on the stock market, yet keep voting control in the trusts. The family spirit might be retained while the choice of who runs the company next is widened. Indeed, the offspring may be better suited to overseeing the family trust (as other offspring often end up doing anyway).

A vibrant economy is developed by people who build, not hang on. A democratic society is reinforced by people who succeed by their own wits, not some birthright. We need people who chart their own course, even if that means coming back to buy their family’s own businesses.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing at mintzberg.org/blog.

The best is too low a standard

1 October 2015

In 1997, Stuart Crainer met me at Heathrow Airport as I arrived overnight from Montreal.  It was the only time we could connect, to interview me for a book he was writing with Des Dearlove about management ideas and gurus.

This guru business must be very competitive, Stuart suggested. Not at all, I said: I never felt any competition. And then I blurted this out in my jet-lagged stupor (words I remember clearly): “I never set out to be the best. It’s too low a standard. I set out to be good.”

This may sound arrogant, but I did not mean it that way at all. I was not claiming to be better than the best, just beside the very quest for being the best. How can anyone tell the best anyway? (Was Mozart better than Beethoven?) What I meant is that exceptional work is done by people who compete with themselves, not anyone else. They do their best.

In 1997, Stuart Crainer met me at Heathrow Airport as I arrived overnight from Montreal.  It was the only time we could connect, to interview me for a book he was writing with Des Dearlove about management ideas and gurus.

This guru business must be very competitive, Stuart suggested. Not at all, I said: I never felt any competition. And then I blurted this out in my jet-lagged stupor (words I remember clearly): “I never set out to be the best. It’s too low a standard. I set out to be good.”

This may sound arrogant, but I did not mean it that way at all. I was not claiming to be better than the best, just beside the very quest for being the best. How can anyone tell the best anyway? (Was Mozart better than Beethoven?) What I meant is that exceptional work is done by people who compete with themselves, not anyone else. They do their best.

Was Edith Piaf the best? Who knows? But was she ever good! Indeed, she was incomparable, and so in no danger of being labelled the best. Michael Porter, the Harvard strategy guru, has written extensively about how to be competitive in business and health care. With whom was Mike himself competing when he wrote his landmark books Competitive Strategy and Competitive Advantage?

The best story about this—well, actually a really good one—comes from Sylvie Bernier, who won the gold medal for diving at the 1984 Olympic Games. I got to know Sylvie when she did our International Masters for Health Leadership (imhl.org). One day I asked her what really distinguishes those athletes who win such high honors.

Sylvie told me an extra-ordinary story—not about other Olympic medalists, but about her own experience. When she got into the finals, she blocked off everyone and everything: her coach, her parents, journalists, TV and radio—any source that could possibly tell her how she was doing. Sure she wanted to be the best—that’s in the nature of such an event (there is, after all, only one gold medal)—but her means to get there was by doing her best, competing with herself above all.

As she came up from that last dive, Sylvie could not have known whether she won gold or nothing. Maybe that’s why she won gold.

So let’s drop, not our standards, but our obsession with being the best, so that we can get on with being as good as we can possibly can.

Stuart and Des now run the prominent Thinkers50. Since 2001 it has been ranking these gurus of the management world. I used to be on that list, but eventually, with we older guys dropping down (the likes of Tom Peters, Warren Bennis, and Phil Kotler), they kicked a bunch of us upstairs, to their Management Hall of Fame, and thus no longer eligible to be ranked among these best.

That caused a bit of a fuss on the part of one of our colleagues, who had a new book coming out and could have used the publicity. So on his behalf, I had some correspondence with Stuart and Des, wondering if the voting component of the ranking was flawed. (One person, who ranked somewhat high but in my opinion deserved to be low, was writing to everyone he knew to vote for him. People obsessed with being “the best” tend to do such things.)

Stuart and Des wrote back to me, explaining that voting was “just one element” of the Thinkers50 selection process, and that the list should reflect “current trends, preferences, and favorites.” Noted, too, was that ”the business world is moving fast. Managers are relentlessly interested in what is new and fashionable.” True enough—unfortunately.

Anyway, I survived that. And now, today to be specific, Stuart and Des are announcing that I have been chosen to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at their gala in London next month. They have explained that “The Lifetime Achievement Award is given to someone who has had a long-term impact on the way people think about and practice management.” It has only been given twice before, to Charles Handy of the UK in 2011 and Jiro Nonaka of Japan in 2013.

So thank you Stuart and Des for honoring me, alongside your best, for being good.

Best,
Henry

© Henry Mintzberg 2015