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Henry Mintzberg: Gadfly Generalist

Henry Mintzberg is one of today’s great management thinkers, whose work is characterised by breadth, rigour, and iconoclasm. His work has so much breadth and depth that I have decided it merits two blogs, rather than one.

In this first blog, we’ll look at Mintzberg the man, and his earliest work on the nature of managerial work. In the second blog, we will look at two further big themes in his professional work: how organisations are structured, and how they create strategy.

Henry Mintzberg

Brief Biography

Henry Mintzberg was born in Montreal in 1939 and graduated from McGill University in Mechanical Engineering in 1961. He then went to work for the Canadian National Railways for two years in Operational Research, but quickly gravitated to an academic career. He won his doctorate from the MIT Sloane School of Management in 1968, and returned to McGill, where he is Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies. For much of the time, he has split his teaching and research time between there and INSEAD, the international graduate business school, based in Fontainebleau, in France.

He is a prolific writer with 16 books and over 150 articles and monographs to his name. Most recently, he has focused on a more politically oriented critique of western society and business, taking the extremes of capitalist thinking to task, much as the west took the extremes of communist thinking to task in the 1980s. His pamphlet, Rebalancing Society, is available from his website.

Mintzberg is notable as a gadfly, critic and iconoclast who is outspoken on many issues and highly quotable in the way he speaks and writes (an example is below). But he is thoughtful and rigorous too: when he disagrees with another academic or commentator, he rarely engages in an attack, but rather he gathers his data carefully, before mounting a strong – often devastating – counter-argument.

Mintzberg MonkeyMintzberg on Managerial Work

Mintzberg’s first book was The Nature of Managerial Work, published in 1973. It was followed by one of the all time most popular Harvard Business Review articles, whose tile described Mintzberg’s thesis well: The Manager’s Job: Folklore and Fact (this is one of many classic HBR articles, that, while protected by copyright, the enterprising blog reader can probably track down).

In his earliest academic work, Mintzberg set out to discover what managers actually do with their time: not what they should do, nor what they say they do. His managers went all the way up their organisations to CEOs. His results put the lie to grand theories of management behaviours – most notably Peter Drucker‘s metaphor of manager as orchestra conductor. Instead, what he found were managers constantly juggling interruptions and distractions, spending very little time on any one topic. Their big projects are delegated and all they can do is spend a few minutes here and there, engaging with one of them, before moving onto something else.

Most managers I know would, firstly, recognise this description and, secondly, fear that this is dysfunctional – not at all what they should be doing. Mintzberg gives them the confidence that they are not alone. He also found that much of what managers did in the early 1970s was ‘old fashioned’ and I suspect it still is: a lot of their time is spent dealing with people, talking, chatting, even gossiping. This gathering of ‘soft’ information is the basis of their decision making as much as or even more than the formal documenting, analysis and careful consideration that theory would prescribe.

Out of all of his observations, Mintzberg catalogued ten managerial roles, which he grouped into three clusters.

Interpersonal Roles

  • The Figurehead, whose role is to represent the team, division or organisation, formally. Often a merely symbolic role, but more frequently, a political one.
  • The Leader, whose role is to co-ordinate,unify, and motivate the team.
  • The Liaiser, whose role is to build up and maintain a network of contacts within and beyond their organisation.

Informational Roles

  • The Monitor, whose role is to gather and evaluate information from all sources.
  • The Disseminator, whose role is to transmit the information across the organisation and to their team members.
  • The Spokesperson, whose role is to give information to the outside world, from within the organisation.

Decision-making Roles

  • The Entrepreneur, whose role is to design, initiate, and propagate change within the organisation.
  • The Disturbance Handler, whose role is to deal with the unexpected.
  • The Resource Allocator,whose role is to make decisions about how the organisation’s resources can best be deployed.
  • The Negotiator,  whose role is negotiate for resources internally and externally.

The first thing that strikes me is that there is little here about getting things done – the job of a manager is to manage: not to do. The second thing is how much of this is reactive to events – very little of this smacks of careful consideration and planning. The risk here is one of superficiality and quick fixes, so a manager must guard against these, by learning to be adept at spotting what is important from among the vast amount of distracting dross.

Finally, I cannot help worrying about ‘the magic number trap’. Here we see a perfect ten roles. I do hope the younger Mintzberg – now the rigorous gadfly – did not succumb to the temptation to simplify in search of neatness. What roles may he have missed, or conflated?

Next week… Part 2: Henry Mintzberg: Management Thinker

If general management is your thing, you may like…

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