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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.

Nailing Corporate Reformation to the Door

2 October 2018

Co-authored with Frederick Bird

In the sixteenth century, there were calls for reforms of the Christian Church, which was then the largest, wealthiest, and most global institution in the world. Some critics engaged in protests, others offered advice or called for a gathering of leaders. But what eventually sparked action was a poster nailed to the door of the All Saints Church, Wittenberg, in the fall of 1517, by Martin Luther, a monk and professor. He posted 95 theses about fundamental issues to be addressed. Thus began the Reformation.

Photo credit: Martin Luther [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Co-authored with Frederick Bird

In the sixteenth century, there were calls for reforms of the Christian Church, which was then the largest, wealthiest, and most global institution in the world. Some critics engaged in protests, others offered advice or called for a gathering of leaders. But what eventually sparked action was a poster nailed to the door of the All Saints Church, Wittenberg, in the fall of 1517, by Martin Luther, a monk and professor. He posted 95 theses about fundamental issues to be addressed. Thus began the Reformation.

Photo credit: Martin Luther [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At a meeting last November at the Drucker Forum in Vienna, Charles Handy called for a reformation of our time, concerning the business corporation.  David Hurst and Nick Hixson, both Drucker Associates, responded by asking a number of management thinkers to reflect, in the manner of Luther’s 95 theses, on ills and remedies concerning the corporation today.

As management professors, one of us trained in religious studies, we have taken up this call, rather literally. We propose 9.5. theses (Luther’s were highly repetitive!), directed at fostering reform of an institution whose influence today is arguably comparable to that of the Christian Church at the time of Luther.

These 9.5  theses are not meant to be comprehensive, only, like those of Luther, a possible starting point for reformation. One thesis is taken straight from Luther, and all but one of the others have been modified from, and inspired by, Luther’s own words. (An # designates the number of Luther’s original thesis, with our modifications of his original in italic.) Like Luther, we state these theses without comment: they should speak for themselves.

1. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory. (#27)

2. Those who believe they can be certain of their salvation because they have achieved higher share value will be eternally damned, together with their consultants. (#32)

3. Why do so many corporations, whose combined wealth is today greater than the wealth of most nations, build their one basilica of globalization for their own benefit rather than for everyone? (#86)

4. Away with all those economists who say to the people “more, more, more” when the people need better, better, better. (#92)

5. … for the souls in purgatory, fear by downsizing should necessarily decrease and distribution of wealth increase. (#17)

6. Leadership indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to the good works of communityship. (#41)

7. The true treasure of business is to add value to society. (#62)

8. Because love grows by works of love, businesses become better when they engage in love of the people and the planet. (#44)

9. To repress these very sharp arguments of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the corporations and their CEOs to the ridicule of their enemies and to make citizens unhappy. (#90)

9.5. Blasphemous is the dogma that greed is godly and markets are sacred.

We believe that this dogma has taken our world out of balance, in favor of self-interest over collective needs and the common good. As a consequence, tyrants are being elected, only to undermine further the very democracies that put them into office. With no countervailing power to stop them—no serious global government, no reliable superpower—these tyrants threaten peace on earth. Faith will have to be restored in our institutions, including a reframing of corporate social responsibility, to favor balance in society.

© Frederick Bird and Henry Mintzberg 2018. For more on balance, see Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center.

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Strategic Thinking as “Seeing”

14 September 2018

Maybe we think too much and see too little. What, then, does strategic seeing mean?

Let’s begin with what strategic thinking is not. It’s not following an industry recipe or copying a competitor’s strategy or continuing to do what was always done—at least not unless these have been carefully considered. In other words, strategic thinking is not mindlessness, not imitation, not thoughtless persistence. Nor is it purely cerebral: separating self from the subject of strategy and working it out cleverly in a meeting.

Most people would agree that strategic thinking means seeing ahead.

But we can’t see ahead unless we see behind, because any good vision of the future has to be rooted in an understanding of the past. To paraphrase Kierkegaard, life may be lived forward, but it is understood backward.

Maybe we think too much and see too little. What, then, does strategic seeing mean?

Let’s begin with what strategic thinking is not. It’s not following an industry recipe or copying a competitor’s strategy or continuing to do what was always done—at least not unless these have been carefully considered. In other words, strategic thinking is not mindlessness, not imitation, not thoughtless persistence. Nor is it purely cerebral: separating self from the subject of strategy and working it out cleverly in a meeting.

Most people would agree that strategic thinking means seeing ahead.

But we can’t see ahead unless we see behind, because any good vision of the future has to be rooted in an understanding of the past. To paraphrase Kierkegaard, life may be lived forward, but it is understood backward.

Of course, even the best knowledge of the past may not help to see the future. We need to foresee discontinuities rather than extrapolating trends. And for this, there are no techniques, not much more than informed, creative intuition.

Some people think that strategic thinking is about “distinguish the forest from the trees”. The only way to do this is to hover above those trees. To them, therefore, strategic thinking is seeing above.

But can anyone get the “big picture” just by seeing above. The forest looks like a carpet from a helicopter, yet anyone who has taken a walk in a forest knows that it doesn’t look like that on the ground. Strategists can’t understand much about forests if they stay in helicopters, nor much about organizations if they stay in head offices.

I prefer the metaphor of finding the diamond in the rough: see the gem of an idea that changes an organization. And that does not come from the big picture at all, but from a lot of hard and messy digging. Indeed, there is no big picture (let alone precious gem) readily available to strategists. It must be constructed from the details that they dig up—or the brushstrokes painted one-by-one. Thus, strategic thinking is also inductive thinking: seeing above must be inferred from seeing below.

Yet you can see ahead by seeing behind and see above by seeing below and still not be a strategic thinker. That takes creativity, even ordinary creativity. Strategic thinkers see differently from other people; they pick out the precious gems that others miss, paint their own pictures, challenge conventional wisdom—and thereby differentiate their organizations. Such thinking has been referred to as lateral thinking, and so we can call it seeing beside.

There are many creative ideas in this world, far more than we can handle—just visit any art gallery. And so, to think strategically requires more than just seeing beside. Those creative ideas have to be placed into context, to be seen to work in a world that is to unfold. Strategic thinkers, in other words, also see beyond.

Seeing beyond is different from seeing ahead. The latter foresees an expected future by constructing a framework out of the past. The former constructs the future—it invents a world that would not otherwise exist.

But strategic thinking is not finished yet, because there remains one last necessary ingredient. What is the use of doing all this seeing—ahead and behind, above and below, beside and beyond—if nothing gets done? In other words, to deserve the label strategic, thinkers and organizations must also see it through.

Put this all together and you get the following: strategic thinking as seeing.

©Henry Mintzberg 2018. An early vision of this appeared in J. Nasi, ed., Arenas of Strategic Thinking, Foundation for Economic Education, Helsinki Finland, 1991.

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