Henry Mintzberg 2: Management Thinker

This is our 250th weekly Management Pocketblog.
We’re looking forward to the next 250!

In last week’s blog, we started our exploration of Henry Mintzberg, Gadfly Generalist. In this second blog, I want to examine two other aspects of his work: the way organisations are structured, and how they think strategically. But first, I feel the need to add in, gratuitously, another of Mintzberg’s more memorable quotes.

Mintzberg Delayering

Mintzberg on The Structure of Organisations

Mintzberg has visited this topic twice: in his 1979 book, The Structuring of Organisations, and then again, in 1989, in Mintzberg on Management. His earlier work identified five archetypical organisational structures or types, which he later revised to six.

  • Entrepreneurial Organisations are small, informal, with loose allocation of roles, but frequently strong leadership from a single chief executive.
  • Machine Organisations are excellent at repetitive tasks like manufacturing, placing efficiency of process at their heart, and formalising everything.
  • Diversified Organisations create a central administrative function to serve a range of operating units that are more or less autonomous. The degree of autonomy seems to vary in cycles with the current cycle creating a high degree of centralisation. See the earlier article, Kenichi Ohmae: Irrational Strategy.
  • Professional Organisations might also be called knowldege organisations. They use the skills and knowledge of their highly trained workforce to deliver fairly standardised services.
  • Innovative Organisations are flexible, informal and multi-disciplinary, allowing them to adapt and innovate. Mintzberg saw these as increasingly succeeding over competitors in the future.
  • Missionary Organisations have a clear mission that provides the basis for strategic choices and the motivation for employees.

Mintzberg on Adhocracy

I am going to make more of this than it may strictly deserve, as it is just one of very many topics on which Mintzberg writes. But it is one that interests me, especially with the emergence in recent years of the concept of holacracy, which seems a natural successor.

The term was, I think, first coined by Warren Bennis and then taken up and popularised by Alvin Toffler in his book, Future Shock. An adhocracy is a way of governing an organisation, not through formal structures, but through informal networks in which individuals take on the roles that are needed at the time. Such organisations are fluid and undocumented and unstructured knowledge has a high value.

Mintzberg developed these ideas, advocating small scale, temporary organisations coming together within the larger whole, to deliver a project, or one product or service, or to serve one customer. He saw two models:

The Operational Adhocracy, which works on behalf of it clients, like service businesses such as consulting

The Administrative Adhocracy, which comes together to serve its parent organisation.

Both of these models are excellent at creating adaptability and reacting to changes in circumstance. Consequently, both are poor at strategy building, because members have little investment in the adhocracy’s long-term development.

Mintzberg on Organisational Strategy

Mintzberg has made several influential contributions to thinking about organisational strategy too. His most notable influence has been, like Ohmae, to advocate non-linear, creative thinking over formulaic, analysis-driven strategy development. Once again (see last week) Mintzberg’s HBR article on the subject is very widely read and, once again, the enterprising reader could find a copy notwithstanding HBR’s copyright if you chose to. His books on the subject include: Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning (1994), The Strategy Process (1996), Strategy Safari (1998), and Strategy Bites Back (2004). Many of these are in revised editions and remain valuable today.

He sees three major pitfalls in traditional strategy making and rejects any assertions that our volatile, uncertain times are anything special – try telling that to people in Stalingrad during the Second World War, he says. All people at all times have seen their world as complex and uncertain.

Mintzberg’s three pitfalls are:

  1. Assuming that we can predict discontinuities. We tend to assume, implicitly, that the future will flow from the past and that changes will arise from trends. This is a theme that Nassim Nicholas Taleb has recently made his own, with his best selling book, The Black Swan.
  2. Planners are often detached, in the ivory planning towers, from daily realities. They are focused on the hard data and its analysis and miss out on the soft information that would alert them to big shifts. This says that operational managers need to be highly engaged in any strategic work.
  3. A belief that formal strategy development can follow a linear process. Instead, he argues, creative, divergent thinking is needed, which can make links outside of the logic-chain, subverting established categories and dogmas.

So, to end this exploration of Mintzberg’s thinking, one last, telling quote.

‘The real challenge in creating strategy lies in detecting the subtle discontinuities that may undermine a business in the future. And for that there is no technique, no program, just a sharp mind in touch with the situation.’


Pocketbooks you might enjoy

I am a little loath to include a book on the process and tools of strategy, but it is a good book and I have included it alongside others on creative thinking!

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