Blog: Simply Managing

Some Half-truths of Management

22 March 2017

“There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths” (Alfred North Whitehead). So here are a few in management.

We live in times of great change.

Have you heard this before—say in the last hour? Did you know that when a laptop detects a CEO about to type a speech, it automatically enters: “We live in times of great change.”  Why bother the CEO to type it again, since just about every management speech in the past few decades has begun with this line. That never changes.

Do we really live in times of great change? Look around and tell me what’s changed fundamentally. Your food, your furniture, your friends, your fixations? Are you wearing a tie, or high heels? How come: because you always have? How about your car? Under the hood is probably a four-cycle, internal combustion engine. That was in the Model T Ford.

“There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths” (Alfred North Whitehead). So here are a few in management.

We live in times of great change.

Have you heard this before—say in the last hour? Did you know that when a laptop detects a CEO about to type a speech, it automatically enters: “We live in times of great change.”  Why bother the CEO to type it again, since just about every management speech in the past few decades has begun with this line. That never changes.

Do we really live in times of great change? Look around and tell me what’s changed fundamentally. Your food, your furniture, your friends, your fixations? Are you wearing a tie, or high heels? How come: because you always have? How about your car? Under the hood is probably a four-cycle, internal combustion engine. That was in the Model T Ford.

When you got dressed this morning, did you say to yourself: “If we live in times of great change, how come we are still buttoning buttons?” (from Wikipedia: “Functional buttons with buttonholes for fastening or closing clothes appeared first in Germany in the 13th century”.)

What’s my point? That we only notice what is changing, and most things are not. Of course, some things are changing: information technology, most notably. Zap, I hit a few keys and Wikipedia tells me about buttons. I hope you have taken notice of this new technology, because it is rendering great changes.  But I hope that you are also taking notice of all the things that are not changing, because they are no less important. Managing change without managing continuity is anarchy.

The world is becoming more global.

Often, when I work with groups of managers in various parts of the world, I ask them whose businesses have more than half their sales outside the home country. You would be surprised how few do. (If a quintessentially global company like General Electric has about half its sales in the United States, then it is better described as a quintessentially American company.)  Think of how much retailing, banking, food, and so on, is local. On the other hand, more than a century ago, Singer sewing machines were sold as globally as are Apple phones today.

The fact of the matter is that some businesses have long been global, and a great many remain local.

Management sits on top.

Of what? The pay scale, to be sure, and probably the headquarters building too. But mostly on top of that ubiquitous chart. So what? If, as CEO, you see yourself on top of your organization, does that help you keep on top of what is going on in your organization? No. This top is the worst place to manage an organization: looking down on everybody else. Try the ground instead.  Don’t we have enough disconnected managing already?

From this top comes decisions and strategies for everyone else to implement.

IKEA has a terrific strategy: selling unassembled furniture so that we can take it home in our cars, which saves us and the company lots of money. According to IKEA’s own website, this idea came from the ground. A worker tried to put a table in his car, and it didn’t fit, so he took off the legs. Then came the key insight that eventually changed the strategy, and the industry: “If we have to take the legs off, don’t our customers do too?” Who asked that: a CEO on top?

Of course, key to this becoming strategic was a company culture that enabled this idea to get to the CEO, to sprinkle holy water upon it. But I’ll bet this particular CEO, like most successful entrepreneurs, spent lots of time at the bottom finding out what was going on.

Thus: from everywhere, “implementation” included, come little insights that can emerge into big strategies.

Organizations need heroic leaders.

Really? How often have heroic leaders ridden into established organizations on great white horses, only to fall into black holes? New organizations may need aggressive leadership, but most others need engaged management—quiet, humble, thoughtful. Enough narcissism in the executive suites.

People are human resources.

Not me! Feel free to let yourself be called a human resource. I am a human being, thank you. Not even a human asset, let alone human capital. Enough of the demeaning vocabulary of economics—turning us all into things. Resources are things we throw away when we no longer need them. Is that how to build a great enterprise: by throwing away the human beings? (It’s politely called “downsizing”.) Airlines used to refer to passengers as “self-loading cargo.” Are the HR words really any better?

If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

This is just plain silly.  If you can’t measure it, you had better manage it. And if you can measure it, you had better manage it even more carefully. Think of all that matters in management—and in life—that is tough to measure: culture, engagement, leadership, the market for a truly novel product (who ever got that right?), even management itself. And tell me, did anyone who uttered this nonsense ever even try to measure the performance of measurement, instead of assuming it is wonderful? I guess, then, that we shall have to get rid of management and measurement too, not to mention truly new products.

I could go on, since too much management goes on and on with its half-truths. Instead I’ll just quote Winston Churchill, that human being who lived in times of greater change than most of us can possibly imagine:

“[People] occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.”

© Henry Mintzberg 2017. Our International Masters for Managers (impm.org) helps managers face all degrees of truth.

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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.