Blog: Simply Managing

Managing Scrambled Eggs

17 October 2018

This is the opening story, that sets the tone, for my new book Bedtime Stories for Managers, a collection of my TWOGs, coming out in February. It’s time to unscramble the messes of managing.

One morning, years ago, I flew Eastern Airlines from Montreal to New York. It was the largest airline in the world at the time, but soon to go belly up.

They served food in those days, well sort of—something they called “scrambled eggs.” I said to the flight attendant: “I’ve eaten some awfully bad things in airplanes, but this has to be the worst.” “I know”, she replied, “we keep telling them; they won’t listen.”

This is the opening story, that sets the tone, for my new book Bedtime Stories for Managers, a collection of my TWOGs, coming out in February. It’s time to unscramble the messes of managing.

One morning, years ago, I flew Eastern Airlines from Montreal to New York. It was the largest airline in the world at the time, but soon to go belly up.

They served food in those days, well sort of—something they called “scrambled eggs.” I said to the flight attendant: “I’ve eaten some awfully bad things in airplanes, but this has to be the worst.” “I know”, she replied, “we keep telling them; they won’t listen.”

Now how could this be? If they were running a cemetery, I could understand the difficulties of communicating with their customers. But an airline? Whenever I encounter awful service, or a badly designed product, I wonder if the management is running the business, or reading the financial statements?

The financial analysts were certainly reading those statements, and probably explaining the airline’s problems in terms of load factors and the like. Don’t believe a number of it. Eastern Airlines went belly up because of those scrambled eggs.

Some years later, after telling this story to a group of managers, one of them, from IBM, came up to tell me another story. The CEO of Eastern Airlines came rushing in at the last minute for a flight, he said. First class was full, so they bumped a paying customer to put him where I guess he had become accustomed. Apparently feeling guilty, he reportedly made his way to Economy Class (no mention was made of him having to ask where it was). There he apologized to the customer, introducing himself as the CEO of the airline. The customer replied: “Well, I’m the CEO of IBM.”

Now, don’t get this wrong. The problem was not about who was bumped. Quite the contrary, status was the problem: higher class counted for more than common sense. Managing is not about sitting where you have become accustomed. It’s about eating the scrambled eggs.

 

© Henry Mintzberg 2018 (was on this site 7 April 2016 with small differences). Bedtime Stories for Managers can be preordered on Amazon.

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.