WHAT does the Enron scandal say to you about the state of management?
Enron is just the most blatantly corrupt example of a lot of legal corruption. You have to question the role of the auditing firms. What’s the point of an auditing firm if they don’t audit? There are all kinds of things going on in terms of executive compensation and the games being played. It’s all being driven by a narrow definition of success that’s based on shareholder value. We’re out of balance. We’re completely obsessed with the economic side of everything.
Would you expect to see more Enrons come to light now?
Companies are covering their backs like mad - even safe companies. Will it come to light after the fact? Yes, I guess more will show. It’s not so much the blatantly outrageous acts like Enron, what worries me are the prevailing attitudes in many companies.
It’s a form of corruption. It can be a kind of legal corruption: a corruption of values; a corruption of attitude; a corruption of responsibility. The system is sick right down to its roots. Call it shareholder value or whatever, but the obsession with narrow performance and economics skews the way that people think and act. Businesses can’t function without some degree of social responsibility.
Is there a role for practising managers in redressing the balance?
Companies have to balance the social with the economic for their own good as well as for society’s good. But even CEOs are just cogs in the machine. How are they going to stand up to a board that sees shareholder value as the only important dimension? Solzhenitsyn said that a society that has no rules like the communist society is abhorrent, but a society that only stays within the letter of the law - he had the United States in mind - is not much better.
Your PhD research in the 1970s studied what managers did. Has that changed much in the intervening years?
No. What has changed is the style of management. As we get more MBAs in companies so the style of management becomes more disconnected.
What’s wrong with MBAs?
Basically my objection is that MBA programmes claim to be creating managers and they are not. The MBA is really about business, which would be fine except that people leave these programs thinking they’ve been trained to do management. I think every MBA should have a skull and crossbones stamped on their forehead and underneath should be written: "Warning: not prepared to manage".
And the issue is not just that they are not trained to manage, but that they are given a totally wrong impression of what managing is; namely decision-making by analysis. The impression they get from what they’ve studied is that people skills don’t really matter.
So they come out with this distorted view. I’ve seen it over and over again where people have MBAs and go into managerial positions and don’t know what they are doing. So basically they write reports and plans and do all sorts of information processing things and pretend that it’s management. It’s killing organisations, and I think it’s getting worse over time.
You talk about nuanced management as a better way of managing - what is it and how do you learn it?
I don’t think it is a better way of managing, I think it is managing. I think all decent management is nuanced. Bad management is not nuanced; bad management is categorical.
Nuanced management is about getting involved, knowing the business, knowing what’s going on day-to-day. For me it’s all about getting past all the nonsense that passes for management. It’s getting in touch, knowing what’s really going on, being responsive - and responsible.
To what extent can and should managers educate themselves - can they apply your techniques on their own?
Largely, managers have to educate themselves because they can’t go into educational programs for a longer period of time. They have to be learning all the time so they have to educate themselves.
You ask about my techniques - I have no techniques. I have ideas, but as soon as they become techniques they start to lose their usefulness. We put a lot of emphasis on reflection - taking time to step back and think about what you can learn from your own experience. I wouldn’t call it a technique but it is important. I think managers can learn how to be reflective and then apply it. I think that’s what good managers do.
How does your approach to executive education facilitate that?
The way our programs work is we bring people into a thoughtful atmosphere and we sit them around a table and get them to share their experiences in a low key way. I’m critical of management programs that promise boot camps. Managers live boot camps every day of their lives. What they need is to slow down and reflect.
Part of your IMPM program is delivered in India - why did you choose that country?
We wanted to go to a place that had three things. Number one, a truly developing country - in other words not wealthy but improving. Number two, facility in the English language; and number three, a strong academic infrastructure. India was perfect.
Is managing in India the same as managing anywhere else? Is management universal?
Yes and no. In some ways managing is managing if you describe it in terms of networking and these sorts of things. But on another level every country has its own approach.
I did a session with some MBA students in Argentina, and I asked the dean of the school if they taught an Argentinean style of management. He said no, they teach the universal style of management. I said you mean the American style.
The global style is not global it is American. The trouble is everywhere else people think that the universal way of managing is what happens in the United States. But each place has its own different style.
Is the new economy real or just a lot of hype?
There’s always a new economy. A century ago the automobile industry was part of a new economy, too. So the idea of a new economy is not new.
I do think there are new industries that come along. There are some industries undergoing a lot of change and some industries undergoing less change. That’s always the case. So it’s real - and it’s a lot of hype.
At the height of the dot.com frenzy some people were saying that the old rules of strategy were dead. What’s your view?
I don’t think there were ever rules about how to make a strategy and I don’t think there are any now. So they can’t be dead. I think there were processes that creative people used to put together information and ideas and come up with the direction they should go in. The rules would always have been bad because they were rules. I talk about emergent strategy - ideas that emerge from that creative process.
Is Michael Porter’s Five Forces framework still relevant today?
Porter’s Five Forces is a wonderful way to analyse industries but it has nothing to do with making strategy because there’s no creativity in it. It’s just an input for a process, not the process itself.
You’ve said that you spend your public life dealing with organisations, and your private life escaping from them. Does that reflect a love hate relationship with large organisations?
I wouldn’t call it a love-hate relationship; I’d call it a hate-hate relationship. I just don’t like big hierarchical organisations.
In the past some large organisations treated people paternalistically, but reasonably decently. But many have destroyed that contract. It’s significant that the two most popular management techniques of all time - Taylor’s work study methods - to control your hands - and strategic planning - to control your brain - were adopted most enthusiastically by two groups, communist governments and American corporations.
Champion of creative strategy
HENRY Mintzberg is a professional contrarian. He has built a formidable reputation on challenging the corporate orthodoxy. His 1994 book The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, revealed the sterility of the conventional strategic planning process which had dominated management thinking for years. It confirmed his place as the great debunker of corporate life.
Mintzberg first came to attention with his 1973 book The Nature of Managerial Work. Based on his PhD research it is one of the few (very few) books which examines what managers do rather than discussing what they should do.
Since then, Mintzberg, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, has applied his heretical attentions to a variety of subjects. In his own field, strategy, he has remained at the forefront of the debate. A champion of strategy as a creative and emergent process, he has consistently defended it against those who seek to reduce it to prescriptive analysis.
Despite his association with business schools, Mintzberg is a long-time critic of the traditional MBA qualification. As an alternative, he and colleagues developed the International Masters Program in Practising Management (IMPM) a global program which encourages managers to break free of the limitations of functional, and other, perspectives. He is currently working on a new book, entitled Developing Managers, Not MBAs, that questions the usefulness of the classic business school degree.