Pursuits | Books

Managers need a reality check, author Henry Mintzberg says

In his book, Bedtime Stories for Managers, the business and management expert reflects on how leaders have veered off course

A Facebook IconFacebook A Twitter IconTwitter A Linkedin IconLinkedin An Email IconEmail

Book cover of Bedtime Stories for Managers by Henry MintzebergHenry Mintzberg highlights the obstacles that can crop up for leaders and businesses, while offering valuable insights on how to navigate them (Image provided)

At the beginning of his latest book, Bedtime Stories for Managers, Henry Mintzberg describes managing as “a hectic job: fast-paced, high-pressured, action-oriented, frequently interrupted.” Everything is expected to be done quickly and immediately—a situation exacerbated by technological change, among other things. 

“Of course, more time reading the screen means less time talking and listening to people face-to-face,” writes the business and management expert and Cleghorn Chair of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal. And as managers are more and more disconnected from what’s happening on the ground, they miss opportunities to learn from others and become more effective communicators.

With this in mind, Mintzberg highlights the obstacles that can crop up for leaders and businesses, while offering valuable insights on how to navigate them. 

RECONNECT WITH THE REAL WORLD

Mintzberg—who has also written Managers Not MBAs, Managing, and Simply Managing—says C-suite executives spend too much time with their peers, and should instead mingle with other levels of employees.

He considers the concepts of top and middle management outdated, as they only serve to further isolate leaders. Instead, he favours a concentric circle structure, which puts “central managers” in the middle, “operating managers” on the outside and “connecting managers” whose focus is on circulating information in between.

Such a model helps reduce silos and the hierarchical structure, while building employee engagement. This way, regardless of a team member’s position, “anyone in touch with an opportunity can come up with an idea that can evolve into a strategy,” says Mintzberg. He cites the example of Kao, a Japanese manufacturer of hygiene and other products that runs its meetings in open spaces, which allows anyone from the organization who is passing by to join in. 

BEWARE OF EFFICIENCY

Mintzberg addresses a greater challenge in his book, which is that managers don’t always measure the right things. 

“When we hear the word efficiency, we zero in subconsciously on the most measurable criterion, like speed of service or consumption of energy,” the author writes. However, because costs tend to be easier to measure than benefits, efficiency is reduced to “cutting measurable costs at the expense of less measurable benefits.” But that can result in other detrimental social effects. In other words, “Making a factory or school more efficient is easy, so long as you don’t care about the polluted air or the stifled learning.”

According to Mintzberg, there are multiple reasons for this, including the incompetence of many profit-oriented managers. “Corporate executives who don’t know what else to do fire great numbers of workers, thereby killing cultures in their organizations and societies,” he explains. Even if the practice of downsizing―which he refers to as “21st-century bloodletting”―has become commonplace, it does not make it any more acceptable.

He also cautions against relying solely on “hard data”, such as financial results, sales figures and so on. Mintzberg says “soft data”—which can be fuzzy and open to judgment—is also needed to explain or complement hard data. For example, he says, if a company asks why its widget sales went up, it could be because the market was expanding (hard data, where “there are numbers on that”) and its key competitor did “dumb things” (soft data, where there are “no numbers on that, just gossip”).

And so, rather than concentrating only on measurables, he suggests we also rely on soft data to verify objective facts—even though such data is inherently subjective and might amount to no more than gossip, hearsay and impressions. We should also go back to see what’s actually happening on the ground, says Mintzberg. In short, efficiency needs to be measured and judged.

BEYOND EFFICIENCY

For Mintzberg, not everything is about efficiency. For example, accounting firms—which he classifies as a “professional assemblage” in his framework—focus on proficiency over efficiency. In his words, “the critical work is highly skilled—it requires years of training.”

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the literature on organizations discusses what the author calls “programmed machines,” or companies predominantly driven by efficiency—“namely getting the greatest numerical bang for the numerical buck.” 

His point is that organizations ought to find the model that best suits them, without confining themselves inside any particular box.

Mintzberg concludes with the following thought: “Let’s drop, not our standards, but our obsession with being the best, so that we can get on with being as good as we can possibly be.”

LOOKING FOR MORE READS? 

Check out these six business books that will give you insights to bring back to work with you.