Blog: Simply Organizing

Organizing like a Cow

16 February 2019

This is one of the stories from my new book, a collection of my TWOGs, entitled Bedtime Stories for Managers

                                                          (diagram from Socket Software)

This bedtime story may seem to be over the moon. It is not! To pick up on an ad that appeared some years ago for a major software company, the drawing above is not a cow. It’s a chart of a cow—its parts. In a healthy cow, these parts don’t even know that they are parts; they just work together harmoniously. So, would you like your organization to work like a chart? Or like a cow?

This is one of the stories from my new book, a collection of my TWOGs, entitled Bedtime Stories for Managers

                                                          (diagram from Socket Software)

This bedtime story may seem to be over the moon. It is not! To pick up on an ad that appeared some years ago for a major software company, the drawing above is not a cow. It’s a chart of a cow—its parts. In a healthy cow, these parts don’t even know that they are parts; they just work together harmoniously. So, would you like your organization to work like a chart? Or like a cow?

This is a serious question. Ponder it. Cows have no trouble working like cows. Nor, for that matter, does each of us, physiologically at least. So why do we have so much trouble working together socially? Are we that confused about organizing, for example, all this obsession with charts?

I discuss this cow in our International Masters Program for Managers (IMPM.org). One time, in the module we hold in India, while crossing the bustling streets of Bangalore, the managers experienced another story about cows. As recounted to me by Dora Koop, a colleague at McGill: “The first day we were told that when we crossed the street in India we had to ‘walk like a cow.’ The whole group had to stay together, and we were warned not to do anything unexpected. So we just moved slowly across the street and the traffic went around us. Throughout the whole program, people used this cow metaphor [recalling the other one, about working like a cow].”

Picture this: a mass of people, all as one, advancing steadily and cooperatively through what looks like chaos. Now imagine the people of your organization advancing steadily and cooperatively through what looks like its own chaos.

In walking like a cow, we have an answer to working like a cow: it’s about walking and working together. Beyond the sacred cow of leadership lies the idea of communityship, a word I made up to put leadership in its place.

© Henry Mintzberg 2019. For more metaphors, and sweeter dreams, please order your own copy of Bedtime Stories for ManagersThis particular story first appeared on 15 December 2015, as “Working like a cow by walking like a cow.” 

 

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Communityship beyond Leadership

18 November 2018

A story from my forthcoming book Bedtime Stories for Managers

Say organization and we see leadership. That’s why those charts are so ubiquitous. They show us who sits on top of whom, but not who talks with whom, when, and about what. Why are we so fixated on formal authority? Is there no more to organizing than bossing? Have a look at Figure 1 to see an Organization. Then look at Figure 2 to see a Re-organization.

Figure 1: This is an Organization

Figure 2: This is a Re-organization

A story from my forthcoming book Bedtime Stories for Managers

Say organization and we see leadership. That’s why those charts are so ubiquitous. They show us who sits on top of whom, but not who talks with whom, when, and about what. Why are we so fixated on formal authority? Is there no more to organizing than bossing? Have a look at Figure 1 to see an Organization. Then look at Figure 2 to see a Re-organization.

Figure 1: This is an Organization

Figure 2: This is a Re-organization

Did you notice the difference? A few names were changed in a few boxes, but the chart—the very perception of organization—remained the same. Do you know why re-organizing is so popular? Because it’s so easy. Shuffle people on paper and the world is transformed—at least on that paper. Imagine, instead, if people were shuffled around offices, to make new connections?

Say leadership and we see an individual—even if that individual is determined to "empower" everyone else. (Must people who are hired to do a job have to be empowered to do that job?) Too often, however, it’s about something else: a great white knight riding in on a great white horse to save everybody else (even when headed straight into a black hole). If one individual is the leader, then everyone else must be a follower. Do we really want a world of followers?

Think of the established organizations that you admire most. I’ll bet that beyond leadership is a profound sense of communityship. (Never heard that word? I made it up1, to put leadership in its place, namely to support communityship.) Effective organizations are communities of human beings, not collections of human resources.

How can you recognize communityship in an organization? That’s easy. You feel the energy in the place, the commitment of its people, their collective interest in what they do. They don’t have to be formally empowered because they are naturally engaged. They respect the organization because the organization respects them. No fear of being fired because some “leader” hasn’t made the anticipated numbers on some bottom line. Imagine a whole world of such organizations!

Sure we need leadership, especially to establish communityship in new organizations and help sustain it in established organiations. What we don’t need is an obsession with leadership—of some individual singled out from the rest, as if he or she is the be-all and end-all of organizing (and is paid accordingly). So here’s to just enough leadership, embedded in communityship.

 

© Henry Mintzberg 2018. Modified from “Organizing beyond Leadership”, to appear in Bedtime Stories for Managers (Berrett-Koehler, February 2019). A similar TWOG appeared on 15 February 2015.

Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing here. To help disseminate these blogs, we also have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn page.

Photos from the author’s collection of beaver sculptures.

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1 I first wrote about this in 2006 and again in 2009: “Community-ship is the answer” Financial Times, 23 Oct 2006, page 8, and “Rebuilding Companies as Communities” Harvard Business Review, July/August 2009, pages 140-143.

Manageable and Unmanageable Managing

28 July 2018

Imagine managing cheese products in India for a global food company, or running a general hospital in Montreal under the Quebec Medicare system. Sounds pretty straightforward, right?

Now imagine that you have sold so much cheese in India that the company asks you to manage cheese for all of Asia. Or in Montreal, you did so well in the hospital that the government asks you to manage a community clinic too—to go back and forth between the two, or stay in an office somewhere and shoot off emails.

Imagine managing cheese products in India for a global food company, or running a general hospital in Montreal under the Quebec Medicare system. Sounds pretty straightforward, right?

Now imagine that you have sold so much cheese in India that the company asks you to manage cheese for all of Asia. Or in Montreal, you did so well in the hospital that the government asks you to manage a community clinic too—to go back and forth between the two, or stay in an office somewhere and shoot off emails.

When reorganizing health care services in Quebec, in one region the government actually went nine times worse: it designated one managerial position for nine different institutions: a hospital, community clinic, rehabilitation center, palliative care unit, and various social services. Gone were the nine managers who headed up each of these institutions, replaced by a single individual to manage the whole works. Think of the money this saved! Think of the chaos that ensued!

Unmanageable Managing   Some managerial jobs are rather natural and others are not. Cheese in India sounds OK, but cheese in Asia? One health care institution sure, but two together (actually apart), let alone nine?

Why do we tolerate unmanageable managerial jobs? Years ago, conglomerates were all the rage among corporations. If you knew management, you could manage all kinds of businesses together—say a filmmaking studio with a nuclear reactor and a chain of toenail salons. That era passed, thankfully, only to be replaced by internal conglomeration. Now it’s fashionable for managers to manage perplexing mixtures of activities within the same business.

This happens because drawing charts is so much easier than managing organizations. All you need is The Great Organizer sitting in an office somewhere (a) clustering various activities together on a chart, (b) drawing a box around each cluster, (c) designating a lucid label for every box (“Cheese in Asia”, “Health and Social Services Centers” in Quebec), (d) drawing a line from every box to the boss, and (e) emailing the tidy result to all concerned—and condemned. What could be simpler than this? Or more complicated?

That Box Called Asia   They eat a lot of cheese in India, but hardly any in Japan. What in the world is “Asia” anyway? Any continent that contains both India and Japan can’t be serious. No two countries are more different.

Have a look at a map of the world. Geographically at least, most of the continents look coherent, all surrounded by seas: Africa, North and South America, and especially Antarctica, even Australia. But how did Asia get in there—no sea to the east—and Europe—no sea to the west? That’s because the Europeans designated the continents in the first place, and how could they leave themselves out, let alone be lumped into Eurasia (Japan? India?), even if that is what the maps indicated? So they drew a line between Europe and Asia, with no sea in sight. Not quite in the sand, mind you: along a range of mountains. (By this logic, Chile should be a continent.) These mapmakers simply sliced Russia in two, to fabricate where Europe ends and Asia begins.

People who used to make such maps now draw organization charts.

The most dangerous manager   Let’s get back to business. You are managing cheese in Asia, except that people in some parts of Asia eat lots of cheese and others don’t. How can you manage that, especially when the person who took your old job is already managing cheese in India perfectly well, thank you, where you have most of your sales?

If you’re smart, you won’t even try. But that won’t get you a promotion—say to become the Big Cheese for all of Asia: kimchi, harissa, and poutine, alongsde cheese without the fries. So manage cheese in Asia you must.  

And that is when the problems begin: Please understand that there is nothing more dangerous than a manager with nothing to do. Managers are energetic people—that‘s one reason they got to be managers. Put one into an unnatural position and he or she will find something to do. Like organizing retreats where the cheese managers from India, Japan, Outer Mongolia, and inner Indonesia can search for “synergies”—ways to help each other sell product that people don’t eat.

Meanwhile, it’s boring to sit in the regional head office in Singapore (the center of the Asian non-continent), so into an airplane goes our energetic manager. Not to meddle, mind you: micro-managing is out of fashion. Just to have a look. “I’m the boss, in charge of cheese for Asia,” you say, hovering over the manager in charge of cheese for Japan. “Thought I would drop by, you know, just to say hello. But while I’m here, let me ask you a few innocent questions: How come cheese is not moving in Japan? Isn’t the job of a business to create a customer? They eat Korean kimchi here, don’t they, just like they eat Indian chutneys in London? So why not Gorgonzola in the Ginza?”

Organizing beyond the Boxes    A hospital all in one place is manageable—at least as manageable as a hospital can be. (To find out why not, read my book “Managing the Myths of Health Care”.) So is selling cheese in India. But beyond that, expecting someone somewhere to manage something because someone elsewhere drew a box on a chart isn’t necessarily manageable at all. Surely we can organize ourselves outside the boxes.

 

© Henry Mintzberg 2018. An earlier version of this appeared in my TWOG of 28 January 2016. This one will be part of my forthcoming book Bedtime Stories for Managers (Berrett-Koehler, January 2019).