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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Management by Reflection

Managing author Henry Mintzberg believes that to improve business schools, we must first understand the essence of what managers do.

One of the most consistently interesting sources of management thinking and education is Henry Mintzberg, the John Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies in the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal. In 1973, Mintzberg first made his mark with The Nature of Managerial Work (Harper and Row), a study of the working lives of five chief executives. Since then, he has been a prominent voice against ritualistic decision making (in his influential 1994 book, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning [Free Press]), in favor of business school reform (in his 2004 book, Managers Not MBAs: A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development [Berrett-Koehler]), and in support of commonsense organizational practices (especially in his most recent book, Managing [Berrett-Koehler, 2009], a tour de force based on in-depth observation of 29 executives at work).

Mintzberg is also an innovator in education. Like several other noted management and leadership writers (Manfred Kets de Vries and Karl Weick come to mind), he has devoted himself to developing new forms of executive education, aimed at leaders, who must combine analytic and intuitive skills on the job. This effort has led to a model of intensive training that Mintzberg calls “natural development.” Offered at McGill University, Lancaster University in the U.K., and the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, the training involves courses in which managers draw on one another’s experiences and insights. He is also experimenting with self-directed learning, using programs by such luminaries as Marshall Goldsmith and human resources expert David Ulrich, along with his own material, through a private company he cofounded called CoachingOurselves.

The idea of a class without instructors has some precedent in management studies: Robert Blake and Jane Mouton offered exactly that with their managerial grid model in the 1960s. Mintzberg’s innovation is to ground the class in on-the-spot problem solving: Participants work on real-world cases that they bring to class. If the natural development approach turns out to be successful, it could help bring a higher level of managerial competence to many organizations, and companies would no longer need to rely on expensive outside instructors (or send participants far away to attend training sessions).

Mintzberg met with s+b for breakfast in New York in January. Our purpose: To learn about the link between understanding management and reinventing management education. We are grateful to Peter Allan Todd, dean of Desautels Faculty of Management, for helping this interview develop.

S+B: Managing opens by saying that management isn’t a science, it’s a practice. How much do we understand about the nature of this practice?
There is a lot that we don’t understand. Our current knowledge of organizations is similar to the science of biology before biologists had names for different species of mammals. They were all “mammals,” just as consultants say the latest technique is good for everybody. It’s as if we were incapable of distinguishing between bears and beavers.

I think it’s amazing how few people are actively researching managerial work — empirical studies of what managers do — as their main focus. Many people are concerned with organizational issues, but because they don’t actually study what managers do, they lack insight into the essence of organizations. Even topics like the impact of e-mail on the way managers work have not been adequately studied. Some research has been conducted on the effects of the Internet on behavior — for example, the way people tend to casually shoot off e-mail messages and then wonder, “Why did I send that?” But there have been no real studies of the impact of e-mail on day-to-day management activity.

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