Blog: Simply Managing

Decision Making: It’s not what we think. It’s also what we see. And what we do too.

21 July 2016

So how do we make decisions? That’s easy. First we diagnose (figure out what the problem is), next we design (identify possible solutions), then we decide (evaluate each, and choose the best), and finally we do (carry that choice into action). In other words, we think in order to act: I call this thinking first.

So how do we make decisions? That’s easy. First we diagnose (figure out what the problem is), next we design (identify possible solutions), then we decide (evaluate each, and choose the best), and finally we do (carry that choice into action). In other words, we think in order to act: I call this thinking first.

So let’s take a decision that was hardly incidental in your life: finding your mate. Did you think first? Following this model, let’s say as a male, first you make a list of what you are looking for in a woman, say brilliant, beautiful, and bashful. Then you list all the possible candidates. Next comes the analysis: you score each candidate (so to speak), on all the criteria. Finally, you add up all the scores to find out who has won, and inform the lucky lady. Except then she informs you that “While you were going through all this, I got married and now have a couple of kids.” Thinking first does have its drawbacks--although arranged marriages in India kind of work like this, and many do work quite well. (You may wish to consider this the next time around.)

So chances are that you proceeded in a different way, like my father, who announced to my grandmother that “Today I met the woman I’m going to marry!” And that he did. There was not a lot of analysis in this decision, I assure you, but it worked out well—a long and happy marriage ensued.

This is known as “love at first sight”; as a model of decision making, I call it seeing first. Even some rather formal decisions happen this way—for example, deciding to hire someone two seconds into the interview, or buying a company because you like the looks of the place. These are not necessarily whims; they can be insights.

But not so fast: there’s a slower and sometimes more sensible way to make decisions. I call it doing first. I’ll leave how that works in finding a mate to your imagination. Suffice it to say that when you’re not sure how to proceed—often the case in making decisions big and small—then you will just have to do, in order to think, instead of thinking, in order to do. You try something in a limited way to see if it might work, and if it doesn’t, you try something else until you find what work. Start small to learn big.

Of course, this can have its drawbacks too. As Terry Connolly, a professor who studies decision making, quipped: “Nuclear wars and childbearing decisions are poor settings for a strategy of ‘try a little one and see how it goes.’” But there are lots of other decisions for which that proves to be a perfectly good strategy. IKEA came up with selling its furniture unassembled after a worker had to take the legs off a table in order to get it in his car. “If we have to do this, what do we think about our customers…?” Rest assured that IKEA must have tried this on a few products before it changed many of them.

So, have you an important decision to make? Good. Hold those thoughts! Look around! Do something! Then you may find yourself thinking differently.

(For more on this and related topics, see the book by Brice Ahlstrand, Joseph Lampel, and myself entitled Management: It’s not what you think (Amazon and Pearson, 2010).

Reference: Terry Connolly “On Taking Action Seriously” in G.N.Undon and D.N.Brunstein eds. Decision-Making: An Interdisciplinary Inquiry (Boston: Kent, 1982:45)

© 2014 Henry Mintzberg Originally posted September 26, 2014. Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing hereTo help disseminate these blogs, we now also have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn.

Managing Government, Governing Management

16 June 2016

Government certainly needs to be managed, but management also needs to be governed. It cannot just be let loose on public services, especially in the form of the “New Public Management” that imitates fashionable business practices. Governments no more need to be run like businesses than businesses need to be run like governments.

This New Public Management is hardly new: it began with the Thatcher government, in the U.K. of the 1980s. Yet for many influential people today, the old New Public Management remains the “one best way” to manage government.


Wax statue of Margaret Thatcher by YortW, CC BY 2.0

Government certainly needs to be managed, but management also needs to be governed. It cannot just be let loose on public services, especially in the form of the “New Public Management” that imitates fashionable business practices. Governments no more need to be run like businesses than businesses need to be run like governments.

This New Public Management is hardly new: it began with the Thatcher government, in the U.K. of the 1980s. Yet for many influential people today, the old New Public Management remains the “one best way” to manage government.


Wax statue of Margaret Thatcher by YortW, CC BY 2.0

There is no one best way to manage everything. These practices have done their share of damage to many government departments, and beyond. Many corporations and NGOs have also suffered from what can reduce to a contemporary form of bureaucracy that discourages innovation, damages cultures, and disengages employees.

In essence, the New Public Management seeks to (a) isolate public services, so that (b)  each can be run by an individual manager, who is (c) held accountable for quantitate measures of performance, while (d) treating the recipient of these services as “customers.” Let’s take a look at all this.

Am I a customer of my government, or a citizen and a subject?  I am no customer of my government, thank you, buying services at arm’s length in the marketplace of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). Do I really need to be called a “customer” to be treated decently?

I am in fact a citizen, who has every right to expect more than a mere customer. This is my government, after all. I am also a subject—whether formally in kingdoms or de facto elsewhere—who has responsibilities to my state. For example, while I may choose to empty my tray at McDonald’s, in our public parks I am expected to keep things tidy. How about soldiers drafted in wartime: are they customers of the government they are expected to serve? And criminals: are they customers of the justice system? True I may be a customer of the state lottery, but frankly, government has no business encouraging me to gamble.

Some activities are in government because caveat emptor cannot possibly apply. Regulation for example. And policing: blacks are citizens of the United States who should not have to beware of their own police. Other activities are funded by government, if not necessarily be delivered by it, to ensure  equality and decency of service. Think of the many health care and educational activities delivered by not-for-profit institutions on behalf of government. (Imagine caveat emptor applied to open heart surgery.)

Can government services be isolated from each other, as well as from political influences, so they can be managed by their managers?   Sure sometimes—again the state lottery. But how about diplomacy?

Let the managers manage” is the motto, just like in business. It sounds good. Isolate the services so that managers themselves can manage them while being held accountable for the results.  (And don’t forget to call these managers CEOs.) Talk about centralization—or more exactly, decentralization from the central state apparatus in order to centralize the department.

Johnson & Johnson can have one brand manager for Tylenol and another for Anusol. But can a government have one brand manager for waging a war and another for diplomatic negotiations to end it? Individuals may be assigned to these activities, but can their responsibilities be isolated? Government activities are wide-ranging, covering so much of life itself, yet can be intricately intertwined, as in life itself.

Nor can the policy-making of many public services be easily separated from the  administration of them. Sure the politicians need to be kept from meddling, especially where there can be graft. But can they remain aloof, for example, when the police are accused of abuse?

This separation of policy-making from administration parallels the belief in business that strategies are formulated at the “top” so that everyone else can implement down below. The superstructure plans and the microstructures execute. It’s all very tidy. Except that the interesting strategies are learned, not planned—sometimes throughout the organization, namely back and forth between managers and other people on the ground. In government this separation is built in, and reinforced by the New Public Management. Yet it can stifle innovation and flexibility.


Free Press and Prentice-Hall International, 1994. Amazon

Can we really rely on performance measures in government?  Measurement has been adopted with a religious fervor in the New Public Management. Look what it has done to the education of our children. I defy anyone to measure adequately what a child learns in a classroom (and you to measure what you are learning in this TWOG). 

Sure we need to measure what we can, just so long as we don’t pretend that everything that matters can be measured. Much that matters in government is not in business precisely because it has no easy measures of performance.

I have been railing on about the dangers of obsessive measuring in a number of these TWOGs. In government, the need to measure everything in sight may now be doing as much harm as corruption. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” is the popular motto. When enough people believe it, we shall have to close down government.

The “balanced scoreboard” is based on the mistaken belief that we can level the playing field across social and economic considerations by measuring both. But that scoreboard can never be balanced because things social are often much harder to measure than things economic. (Once a year I repeat one of my favorite TWOGs about this, called “What could possibly be wrong with efficiency?” Coming soon.) What we need in government, and elsewhere, are balanced brains.

So the next time some civil servant calls you a customer or imposes some artificial measure on you, the next time you meet a “CEO” of some government agency, the next time some candidate for political office claims that government needs to be run more like a business (heard that lately?), tell them that if they wish to manage government effectively, they shall have to respect government for what it is—while governing its management.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. An earlier article by the same title makes a few of these points and others. See also our book Managing PubliclyFollow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing hereTo help disseminate these blogs, we now also have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn.

The Epidemic of Managing without Soul

25 May 2016

I will be doing a live Facebook conversation June 1st at noon (EST). I posted this TWOG a year ago (21 May).  Since this has been one of the most popular TWOGs, I repeat it here, with some editing, as a main subject for that conversation. To receive a notification when the broadcast goes live, follow my Facebook page and add any question you would like to ask.

My daughter Lisa once left me a note in a shoe that read “Souls need fixing.” Little did she know…

I will be doing a live Facebook conversation June 1st at noon (EST). I posted this TWOG a year ago (21 May).  Since this has been one of the most popular TWOGs, I repeat it here, with some editing, as a main subject for that conversation. To receive a notification when the broadcast goes live, follow my Facebook page and add any question you would like to ask.

My daughter Lisa once left me a note in a shoe that read “Souls need fixing.” Little did she know…

A tale of two nurses  When we asked the incoming members of our health care management program (imhl.org) to share stories about their experiences, an obstetrician told about the time when he was shuttling as a resident between the wards of different hospitals. He and his colleagues “loved working” in one of them. It was a “happy” place, thanks to a head nurse who cared. She was understanding, respectful of everyone, intent on promoting collaboration between doctors and nurses. The place had soul.

Then she retired, and was replaced by someone qualified in nursing, with a masters degree in management. Without “any conversation…she started questioning everything.” She was strict with the nurses, for example arriving early to check who came late. Where there used to be chatting and laughing at the start of shifts, “it became normal for us to see one nurse crying” because of some comment by the new manager.

Morale plummeted, and soon that spread to the physicians: “It took 2-3 months to destroy that amazing family…. We used to compete to go to that hospital; [later] we didn’t want to go there any more.” Yet “the higher authority didn’t intervene or maybe was not aware” of what was going on.

The Epidemic  How often have you heard such a story, or experienced one? In the work that I do—studying management and organizations—I hear them often (in one week when I first wrote this, four times). And no few are about CEOs. Managing without soul has become an epidemic in society. Many managers these days seem to specialize in killing cultures, at the expense of human engagement.

Too many MBA programs teach this, however inadvertently. Out of them come graduates with a distorted impression of management: detached, generic, technocratic. They are educated out of context, taught to believe they can manage anything, whereas in actual fact they have learned to manage nothing. Such technocratic detachment is bad enough—numbers, numbers. numbers. The worst of it is also mean-spirited, by bullying people and playing them off against each other. One person, pushed around for years by a nasty boss, said: “It’s the little things that wear you down.”

These managers focus on themselves. You can tell them by their references to “my department”, “my hospital”, as if they own the place because they manage it.  Some, of course, say “our department”, but you can pretty easily tell whether they are sincere. And when they get to the “top” of some non-business organization, they prefer to be called “CEO”, as if they are managing a business. Please understand: managing without soul is bad for business too.

Why do we tolerate this? Why do we allow narcissists with credentials, posing as leaders, to bring down so many of our institutions?

Part of the problem is that people are generally selected into managerial positions by “superiors” (senior managers, boards of directors), often without understanding the damage caused by their decisions. And so we often get what have been called “kiss up and kick down” managers—able to impress “superiors” while denigrating “subordinates.”

A hotel with soul  Last year I was in England for meetings about our International Masters Program for Managers (impm.org—it’s designed with soul, for soul). We stayed at one of those corporate hotels—I hated it from years ago, no spirit, no soul. I recalled the high turnover of staff, and the time when they charged our Japanese participants $10 per minute for calls back home—minutes that a participant from British Telecom estimated to cost the hotel pennies.

Lisa was in England, and so after the meetings we went travelling in the Lake District, a great place to hike. The IMPM was to run a few months later in a hotel there that we hadn’t used before, so we volunteered to check it out.

I walked in and fell in love with the place. Beautifully appointed, perfectly cared for, a genuinely attentive staff—this hotel was loaded with soul. I’ve been studying organizations for so long that I can often enter one and sense soul, or no soul, in an instant. I can feel the energy of the place, or the lethargy; the genuine smile instead of the grin from some “greeter”; honest concern instead of programmed “care.” (“We appreciate your business!” as you wait for someone to answer the phone. Translation: “Our time is more important than yours.”). 

”What’s it mean to have soul?” Lisa asked. “You know it when you see it,” I replied. In every little corner. I asked a waiter about hiking trails. He didn’t know so he fetched the manager of the hotel to tell me. Soon he was there, in no rush to cut the conversation short. I chatted with a young woman at reception. “The throw pillows on the bed are really beautiful” I said. “Yes,” she replied, ‘the owner cares for every detail--she picked those pillows herself.”  How long have you been here?” I asked. Four years, she said proudly, and then rattled off the tenures of the senior staff: the manager 14 years, the assistant manager 12 years, the head of sales a little less.

Why can’t all organizations be like this? Most people—employees, customers, managers--want to care, given half a chance. We human beings have souls, and so too can our hospitals and hotels. Why do we build so many great institutions only to let them wither under the control of people who should never have been allowed to manage anything? Souls need fixing all right, and so does a lot of managing.


Inn on the Lake,  Ullswatter U.K.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016, 2015. See my book Simply Managing, which also discusses how else to select managers (on pages 161-164). There are many TWOGS related to this theme: “Five easy steps to destroying your organization”, “Celebrating the flawed manager”, “Managing to lead”, “Managing scrambled eggs”; “Enough leadership; time for communityship”; “Time for management education”; “The Harvard 19”; “Jack’s turn.”