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Mintzberg on Management

What do managers do? Henry Mintzberg has been trying to answer this question for 40 years. But is it still relevant in an age when all employees need to manage? Or is it a relic of the industrial age? Is management a role, an exclusive club, or a function for all?

Mintzberg has single-mindedly focused on the role of manager from 1973: The Nature of Managerial Work to 2009: Managing. He has consistently found that managers work at a frenetic pace, engage in brief, fragmented activities, communicate more informally than formally, display a bias for action, focus as much on lateral as vertical interaction and exert as much covert as overt control.

Mintzberg claims that observation makes his model of management assumption-free but he does in fact assume that managing should be equated with what managers do. It is because they spend so little time formally planning, organizing and controlling that he rejects this image of the manager. 

However, two very different conclusions are possible:

  1. Mintzberg’s: managing is not accurately characterized as planning, organizing, etc.
  2. Or: managers don’t actually spend much time managing.

To support the second conclusion, we need to define management as a function rather than as a role. A functional slant accounts for effectiveness and why managers spend more time doing than managing. Starting with function, we gain new insights into how managers and other employees manage.

The Function of Management

Why should we define management as a function?  Consider the hammer, a tool defined by its function or purpose: to drive nails into wood. But then all tools are defined by their function. The heart and other bodily organs serve natural functions. Management as a function or tool is used by everyone not just managers. Conversely, elephants are not a function, so we must observe them in their natural environment. Mintzberg feels that we must study managers the way we do elephants rather than analyze the function of management.

Function brings effectiveness to the fore by raising the question of how well something serves its purpose. We can ask whether a particular hammer is more effective for pounding in finishing nails or large spikes. We can compare the pumping power of one heart against another or even ask whether the heart is the best means of circulating blood.

Organizations can be carved up into roles or functions. In businesses that are too small to have sales and marketing roles, the Managing Director carries out both functions. Thus all employees can engage in occasional selling and marketing. Emphasizing roles smacks of exclusive clubs, rigid boundaries and strict hierarchies.

If management is a function, what purpose does it serve? Management serves the purpose of achieving goals in a way that makes the best use of resources, even if only time.

It is NOT just an organizational function. Everyone manages. When we set priorities to make best use of our time, finances or careers, we are managing ourselves. Homemakers deciding to shop now and do the laundry later are managing their time. Beggars who sit in front of banks, stores or subway entrances rather than in parks are trying to maximize the return on their time. This is the essence of management.

Whenever we achieve anything in a manner that is not accidental, haphazard or wasteful, we are managing. Management is a deliberate effort to achieve an objective in an organized, efficient, cost effective way. 

Managing isn’t an abstract process distantly removed from day to day work, as Mintzberg rightly criticizes. It isn’t a separate step taken before work starts; it is rather a way of working, one that is organized and purposeful rather than chaotic, random or wasteful.

We manage in a crisis by making quick decisions about how to allocate our time and other resources, but complex projects must be planned before they can begin. In day-to-day operational work too much planning leads to missed opportunities or a loss of contact with reality while too little planning leads to waste, hence poor management.

Management is value-neutral; even criminal organizations can manage effectively. Values are tied to goals, such as aiming for profit in an eco-friendly way. Effective management makes best use of all resources in achieving that goal just as it does in robbing a bank. 

Thus management is a function. What managers actually do is totally contextual; it’s at a level of context-specific detail where very little can be said in general terms.

Management Effectiveness

The effectiveness of all employees, managers included, depends on how well they can justify their use of resources relative to certain goals. They measure their effectiveness through benchmarking, a balanced scorecard or some other means, continually asking:

  • What is the best use of my time at this moment?
  • How can I add the most value in this situation?
  • What is a better way of getting this task done?
  • How can I make better use of the people reporting to me?
  • How can I achieve greater profitability (through efficiencies or innovation, etc.)?
  • How can I get greater mileage out of my strategic partnerships or other relationships?
  • How can I make better use of my boss’s talent and time?
  • What 20% of my efforts are yielding 80% of my output?

This list could be extended, but management is strategic because it continually refocuses to add maximum value. Managers are strategic in relation to themselves (their own time, experience and talent) as well as in relation to the overall business and every resource at their disposal or within their sphere of influence (boss, colleagues and other stakeholders).

Managing Versus Doing

Mintzberg’s focus on the role of the manager confuses doing with managing. He notes that managers do things, such as those who sell work to clients in consulting firms. But he argues that such doing counts as managing because it requires the manager's level of authority and perspective. Hence selling, in Mintzberg’s world, is doing when done by a sales agent but, oddly, managing when done by a manager.

He sees a doing element in a manager’s wheeling and dealing, negotiating with suppliers or customers, but again he assimilates such doing to managing by virtue of the manager’s role and level of authority.

But Mintzberg provides no argument for the identification of managing with everything managers do. Suppose you are a cook at a remote mining camp, but you spend less than 20% of your time actually cooking. The rest of your day is spent washing dishes, cleaning the kitchen and the dining area, ordering supplies and repairing equipment. Surely you wouldn't call such tasks cooking just because they were part of your role.

Similarly, as a B2B sales agent, you might spend only a fraction of your time actually selling. Much of your day is spent travelling from one client location to another and back to your office where you face a mountain of paperwork. Your title is sales agent but you wouldn't call all of your activities selling.

So, the question is: Why would we call everything a manager does managing? Don’t managers both do and manage? This is evident if management is a function, one that managers engage in only occasionally. 

A functional slant suggests that managers are managing only when striving to get the best out of all resources. Some managers can justify spending a lot of time with customers, for example, but others may simply enjoy it. Surely we want managers to justify their use of time and other resources, not simply do whatever they do because that is their role.

Why Managers Do More Than Manage

Mintzberg notes that some managers like to be interrupted to stay close to the pulse. But is this the best possible use of a manager’s time or merely a personal need to keep on top of things? The truth is that many managers prefer doing things to managing for a number of reasons:

  • Doing is more fun than managing (boys like to play with toys).
  • Facilitating, nurturing, coaching and developing do not feel like real work.
  • Doing things, scoring goals, is the core of their identity, why they got promoted.
  • Management responsibility generates strong ownership.
  • Ruthless accountability discourages mistakes (get it right first time).
  • Authority confers power, the right to call the shots.
  • No one likes to give the boss bad news thus doing things to make sure they are done right.
  • Thinking creatively or strategically (managing) is harder work than doing.
  • Concrete action provides a more tangible buzz than thinking, planning and organizing.
  • Doing is more visible than facilitating; it’s what gets noticed and rewarded.
  • A sense of achievement depends on getting things done.
  • Lean and mean demands that everyone do more.

Managers thus do what they enjoy: immerse themselves in technology, solve functional problems, negotiate deals, form partnerships, liaise with customers and explore new markets. Not wanting to be facilitators, catalysts, coaches and developers of people, they want Human Resources to give them fully competent, low maintenance employees all ready to roll. One manager who was coached to use a more facilitative style said he could see the point but he felt that doing so wouldn’t feel like “real” work; he couldn’t see this as making a “real” contribution, thus confirming that many managers would rather do things than manage.

Further, the mantra “play to your strengths” lets managers remain doers (because their strengths revolve around doing) regardless of what the organization needs of them. Conversely, a functional slant encourages managers to ask continually: what does my organization need of me in this context? 

How the World is Changing

In his 2009 book, Managing, Mintzberg claims that management has not changed much since his 1973 study, other than email and such things. He argues that old examples of managerial work can still help us understand management today. But surely the world has changed more than Mintzberg suggests. His 1973 book, The Nature of Managerial Work, sounds very dated with its talk of formal roles, hierarchy, authority and status.

Changes that call for re-thinking management and the role of manager include:

  1. Increasing complexity
  2. Greater need for collaboration
  3. Employee engagement
  4. Innovation
  1. Complexity leaves managers knowing less and less. Knowledge workers make the bulk of content-related decisions and mostly manage themselves. Their managers are not so much decision-making authorities and directors as facilitators, coaches and catalysts. As self-management increases, managers provide more of a support service.
  2. Collaboration calls for facilitative skills more than content knowledge and formal authority. Fostering the “wisdom of crowds” requires facilitators and catalysts, not authorities.
  3. Employee engagement efforts must reduce the gap between managers and non-managers. We don’t want employees saying: “That’s not my job?” To engage employees, they must be encouraged to think about how to add value in all situations regardless of role. Their roles may be their home base but they don’t need to stay at home all day.
  4. Innovation is now as critical as execution. In the 1970’s when Mintzberg started his research, execution was to the fore and hierarchies were on firmer ground. Innovation requires exploring the unknown, again putting a premium on facilitative skills for managers.

Such changes suggest that it is now less about the manager making decisions and more about drawing the best solutions out of others, bearing in mind that even thinking is doing, especially now that work is more mental than physical. Effective managers think more about how to improve their use of resources than about content. They ask employees “What do you think?” regularly to stimulate and engage them.

The age-old question of whether managers should be specialists or generalists assumes that they, individually, must have enough content knowledge to make decisions. This individualistic world is now long gone; a need for content knowledge suggests doing rather than managing. 

A focus on roles and what managers do is ultimately controlling. It is much more empowering to hold managers accountable for outputs and how well they manage, how well they use the resources at their disposal. Emphasizing purpose also makes for greater agility. When we get stuck, we go back to examining our purpose whereas roles tend to cement us into one spot.

We can’t abandon roles altogether, however. Complexity demands specialization, hence roles. Modern business needs an almost schizophrenic split between execution and innovation. Roles foster the former but constrain the latter.  

In any case, management precedes roles because roles are only one way of managing a complex organization or project. Management can’t be a role in the first instance because the decision to carve work up into roles is itself a management decision. Thus we need a role-independent concept of management.

Although modern business managers have more authority than those who “manage” golfers and tennis players, they also provide a support service rather than just a controlling, overseeing or decision-making one. The skills needed by the modern manager are closer to those of the sportsperson manager than to those of Mintzberg’s 1973 business managers.

Managerial Effectiveness

Mintzberg asks whether managers are effective, not the management function. He notes that managers fail if they are a poor fit for the role. This is true of all roles: an aversion to loneliness could cause a lighthouse keeper to fail. What it takes to be a successful role-occupant is a legitimate question. However, if management is a tool, then we want to know how to use it effectively regardless of who uses it. This is a different question.

Role occupants must achieve their goals to be judged effective. However, it is possible to manage effectively even if goals are not achieved. You could be an excellent carpenter but still fail because the rain prevented you from completing a house on time or because you used the wrong blueprint. Of course we want effective management AND effective managers but these are separate issues. 

Benefits of a Functional Perspective

  • Clarifies what it means to say that all employees manage.
  • Fosters collaboration, shared ownership and engagement by moving beyond roles.
  • Brings management effectiveness to the fore: how managers should behave rather than what they actually do.
  • Balances innovation/agility and execution/efficiency; function is more fluid than role.

In conclusion, Mintzberg’s focus on roles ties him to structure, an archaic slant on organizations. A functional approach is more in line with the dynamic nature of management as performed by all employees. Management can’t be defined as a role. To be effective, managers must question their use of resources, especially whether doing is their best means of adding value in particular situations.

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