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Understanding management: Henry Mintzberg on the activities of managers.

"Without corrupting his science, the management scientist must be prepared to forego elegance, to adjust his technique to the problem rather than searching for problems that fit the technique."

The Nature of Managerial Work, 2nd edition. By HENRY MINTZBERG. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. [1973] 1980. Pp. xix, 280.

Henry Mintzberg is one of the world's leading thinkers on management, a professional contrarian who regularly challenges the conventional wisdom in the management field, and he is a Canadian. Somehow these three attributes do not seem to belong together. Earlier considered something of a heretic--he once suggested that the prestigious journal Harvard Business Review (HBR) should fly a skull and crossbones--his ideas on management have found increasing acceptance over the years, including in the pages of HBR, which published his articles even after he recommended they put a symbol of death on their cover. With more than ten books and more than 100 articles to his credit--and with faculty positions at McGill University in Montreal, as well as INSEAD, a high-profile business school outside of Paris--Mintzberg is in demand as a speaker by corporations and governments and at conferences all over the world.

For more than thirty years, Mintzberg has been contributing original ideas and path-breaking research based upon a close examination of what managers actually do, as opposed to what theory suggests they should do. After studying mechanical engineering at McGill and working in operations research at Canadian National Railways, he went to MIT to study management. His doctoral dissertation was converted into The Nature of Managerial Work, which first appeared in 1973, followed by a second edition in 1980. The book brought Mintzberg immediate recognition in the field because it overturned much of what people then believed about the behaviour of managers. Today, the book remains relevant to the study and the practice of public administration, offering one important perspective on the role of leaders and managers within both private and public organizations. Much has seemingly changed over the past three decades in the external and internal worlds of both private firms and public organizations, but Mintzberg's descriptions of daily managerial life still sound accurate and authentic.

This review first examines Mintzberg's method of study and, secondly, his model of managerial roles. The declared aim of the book was "the generation and dissemination of the best descriptive theory possible" (p. xii). For many people, "theory" means abstract ideas presented in complex language seemingly divorced from, or even in opposition to, the real world of practical work. (1) Mintzberg was dissatisfied with past books on management because they were not based on systematic, empirical evidence of what managers actually did on the job. He claimed to bring no preconceptions to the study of the manager's job, allowing instead for the facts to speak for themselves. In this sense, Mintzberg saw himself as a scientist: "There is no science in managerial work," he wrote (p. 5). Managers work intuitively on verbal cues. Trapped in a complex and turbulent world, managers are obliged to improvise at high speed. Consequently, there is a "superficiality" to the work of managers because there is not the time for reflection and planning. Here is where "management scientists" enter the picture. By understanding the "manager's work" and gaining access to the "manager's verbal data base," management scientists can provide helpful advice on how to process information and develop strategy (p. 6).

Mintzberg described his approach as "descriptive-explanatory" and implied that it was free of normative value premises. However, no study of organizational phenomena can be entirely free of value judgements. By choosing to focus on the individual manager and the context of his or her work, Mintzberg was leaving out other parts of organizational reality, as he would readily admit. Also, he had a purpose in mind when writing. Near the outset of The Nature of Managerial Work, he declares his aim to be the replacement of "a worn-out description of managerial work," which was based on an unduly narrow definition of "rationality" within organizational life. There was in his view no "one best way" to practise management, but his declared aim was to develop knowledge to assist managers in the practical task of achieving organizational objectives. Recognizing the complexity and variety of organizational life, he sought to illuminate and to interpret managerial roles in ways that opened novel possibilities for improved understanding and performance.

Rather than a theory based on description, Mintzberg's work might more accurately be called a search for "practical" or "instrumental" theory. (2) Carefully gathered evidence about managerial work would provide the data to support theory, but once theory was formulated, it would provide the basis for altering practice. In this sense, a science of management was possible. For Mintzberg, a division of labour was required. Management scientists would complement the work of managers. Prior studies by writers like Frederick Taylor, Luther Gulick of POSDCORB [planning, organizing, staffing, directing, coordinating, reporting and budgeting for management] fame, Herbert Simon and others had taught managers how to understand and improve routine operational processes. Now theorists faced a far greater analytical challenge. "The next work on the management scientists agenda," wrote Mintzberg, "is the work of senior management" (p.134). He went on to identify seven areas where in the future management scientists and managers should strive to cooperate. According to my reading of Mintzberg's subsequent publications, I would argue that over the years he has come to accept that management will always be part science, part art, but mostly a craft that is learned and re-learned on the job.

Mintzberg based his first book on "structured observations" of the activities of five chief executives over a week-long period. From these observations, he developed a list of activities and roles of top-level managers. The typology was based on the purpose of the activity. A distinction was made between the characteristics of managerial work (where managers work, how long they work, how they communicate, etc.) and the content of managerial work (what activities they engage in and why). Discerning the purpose behind activity is potentially open to conflicting interpretations. Despite this methodological difficulty, Mintzberg's important contribution was to observe what managers did on a daily basis as the first step towards developing theory about their roles. This contrasts with the usual academic approach of inventing a theory and then setting out to find evidence to support it.

Perhaps for this reason, and because he is alleged to have made intellectual mincemeat out of the then prevailing managerial orthodoxies, Mintzberg's manuscript was rejected by fifteen publishers before it finally reached the bookshelves. There may be some mythology in this claim, however. By the time Mintzberg was conducting his study, there were already serious intellectual and methodological challenges to the scientific management, "principles school" and other rational management approaches that claimed to offer "the one best way" to define and perform managerial roles. Herbert Simon, for example, had written his impressive tome, Administrative Behavior, which demolished the so-called principles of public administration as "mere proverbs" and identified the limits to rationality in organizational decision-making. Like Simon's, Mintzberg's observations of CEOS provided a valuable note of realism that tempered otherwise heroic images of managers as individuals with remarkable foresight and rational problem-solving capabilities. (3)

The managerial life that Mintzberg discovered was hectic, fragmented and diverse--consisting of scheduled and unscheduled meetings (forty-nine per cent), telephone calls (six per cent), tours (three per cent), informal contacts (six per cent) and desk-work (twenty-two per cent). These work patterns produced a certain type of personality and leadership style. "The job of managing," wrote Mintzberg, "does not develop reflective planners; rather it breeds adaptive information manipulators who prefer a stimulus response milieu" (p. 35). In terms of contact time, the CEOS observed by Mintzberg spent forty-eight per cent of their time with subordinates, forty-four per cent with outsiders and only seven per cent with directors (superiors). The executives in Mintzberg's study gravitated to the most tangible, immediate and non-routine elements of their work situation, and most of their information gathering was done on a verbal rather than a written basis. It must be emphasized that Mintzberg was observing business executives more than three decades ago. Given the greater interdependencies of the economy, the numerous linkages among corporations and the increased need to deal with governments, it is probable that CEOS today spend more time on external relations than they did in the past.

Mintzberg's ten roles were divided into three groups, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Information was central to the performance of management roles. The manager served as the "nerve centre" for the generation, collection and sharing of information. Mintzberg's executives spent approximately forty per cent of their time communicating, and this was a crucial requirement for control within their organizations. There was both a procedural and a normative, or values-based, approach to control. Reflecting back some years later, Mintzberg observed that a weakness of his first book was to present a list of roles rather than an interactive model. (4)

As well as identifying ten roles, Mintzberg grouped managerial jobs into eight basic types:

--contract manager (figure head and liaison)

--political manager (spokesman and negotiator)

--entrepreneur (initiator and negotiator)

--insider (resource allocator)

--real-time manager (disturbance handler)

--expert manager (monitor and spokesman)

--new manager (liaison and monitor)

--team manager (leader role)

These eight categories were offered as the basis for theory development, not as a definitive classification. Placing particular sets of activities into these eight categories would involve difficult value judgements. This is not meant as criticism, simply as a recognition that a precise delineation of roles and job descriptions is inherently subjective and problematic.

Mintzberg recognized that managerial roles were to some degree contingent on such factors as the business sector involved, the level of management and the issues of the day. However, he still made the underlying assumption that generic management roles exist in all corporations. In contrast, a recent study of managerial roles within business in four Asian countries concluded that "the commonly accepted universalistic ideas of managerial roles need to be enriched with contextual nuances." (5) Despite globalization of the economy and of management ideas, how Mintzberg's ten roles are acted out in the contemporary Asian context differs significantly from the original study. Given the crucial importance of communication and the motivation of people to successful management, it is not surprising that sociocultural factors (national settings, ownership, organizational culture, gender, etc.) would have an impact on how managerial roles are defined and performed.

There were no public-sector managers in Mintzberg's original study. The index to the book contains only three references to public organizations. Given the wider impact of government on society, the more numerous stakeholders, and the greater openness to outside influences via the political process, it is probably the case that senior public managers have always spent a higher percentage of their time conducting external relations than the CEOS whom Mintzberg observed. That external role for senior public managers has probably increased enormously since the 1970s, as governments have gradually become "tied down" (in a Gulliver-like fashion) by numerous linkages and obligations to outside organizations of all kinds, through trade deals, federal-provincial agreements, advisory networks, contracting out and other new governance arrangements.

It is often suggested that in government departments, the deputy minister is the equivalent of the CEO in private firms. However, this analogy is not entirely satisfactory for many reasons, not least because leadership in government is dual and shared between ministers and senior public servants. Both provide direction to and exercise control over departments. While most CEOS are not the heroic "Lone Rangers" of business mythology, they definitely have more unilateral authority, with far fewer constraints, than do deputy ministers. On many of Mintzberg's ten roles, there can be legitimate philosophical debate and significant variation in practice over who has primary control over various matters--the minister or the deputy minister. In practice, there is considerable interdependence, overlap and variety in how ministers and deputies interact. It was a welcome development that Mintzberg recently turned his attention to management roles and activities in the public sector and even more encouraging that he recognized the distinctive challenges involved with "managing publicly" in contrast to "managing privately." (6) Measuring and modelling the dynamics of leadership and managerial relationships in government presents an enormous theoretical and analytical challenge.

Mintzberg believed that his readers deserved some tangible rewards for plowing through hundreds of pages of descriptions and statistics. For managers, he offered ten points for more effective managing. Listed here in shorthand, for reasons of space, his advice was to share information, deal consciously with superficiality, use obligations to accomplish things and free yourself from unnecessary obligations, emphasize the role that fits the situation, achieve a comprehensive picture that is tied to tangible details, recognize the value of influence, develop coalitions, and use the management scientist. Much could be said about each of these ten hints for would-be managers, but two points will have to suffice. First, it is surprising that communications in management is not singled out more explicitly as a crucial, strategic activity, comparable in importance to other central activities in organizations such as planning and budgeting. (7) Second, there is limited and inadequate recognition, in my judgement, of the central role that "politics" plays in all organizations, especially when it is undergoing significant changes. By "politics" I mean the creative recognition and reconciliation of competing values and interests to achieve as much consensus as possible on future directions. Politics is found in all organizations, but "political constraints" on management are more numerous in public organizations than in private firms and there are defensible reasons for why this is true in a democracy.

For the management scientist, Mintzberg offered the reward of an agenda of future research topics. But, before detailing those, he offered the following sermon: "Without corrupting his science, the management scientist must be prepared to forego elegance, to adjust his technique to the problem rather than searching for problems that fit the technique" (p. 196). Mintzberg broke relatively new ground by studying what managers actually did and then attempting to build theory inductively from what he observed.

What is the relevance of a book written more than thirty years ago? Sweeping changes have taken place in the external and internal environments of both private and public organizations: globalization, the impacts of information technologies, shifts in public opinion, changing roles for women, new ideas about the policies and organizational designs of governments, to name but a few. Despite these seemingly dramatic changes, the core of Mintzberg's managerial roles has probably not changed all that much. With all the hype today about the pace, depth and scope of change, we often lose sight of the continuities of organizational life. The tendency to celebrate bold, heroic leaders ignores the requirement that the basic functions of organizations must be maintained. The role of managers as "conservators" sensibly resisting change to protect the integrity of institutions deserves to be recognized more. This message is implicit in Mintzberg's earliest work, and it has become a theme of his most recent articles. (8)

Every organizational theory will have its critics. Managers who want clear principles, precise prescriptions for action of the truth about how organizations function will usually be disappointed. If some practitioners have unrealistic expectations, others are simply dismissive of theory, believing that management scientists provide little practical knowledge about how to grapple with "real world" problems. Even in academic circles, individual scholars are never universally praised because their theories can never explain all that is important about organizations, and other academics will always believe that their own theories offer more insights. The diversity of theories and the controversies they evoke remind us of the value-laden and problematic character of organizational life. Henry Mintzberg has never skirted controversy, and the fact that his ideas are probably more respected today than when he first presented them is a clear indication that he was asking some of the right questions.
Figure 1. The Managerial Roles

Interpersonal relationships Figurehead
Information processing Monitor
Decision-making Entrepreneur / Change agent
 Disturbance handler
 Resource allocator


(1) See the useful discussion of the relationship between theory and practice in Michael M. Harmon and Richard T. Mayer, Organization Theory for Public Administration (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1986), Chapter 4.

(2) See the useful discussion of different types of theories in Ibid., pp. 396-400.

(3) See James Iain Gow, "Decision man: Herbert Simon in search of rationality," CANADIAN PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION 46, no. 1 (Spring 2003), pp. 120-26.

(4) Henry Mintzberg and Jacques Bourgault, Managing Publicly. Monographs on Canadian Public Administration--No. 25 (Toronto: Institute of Public administration of Canada, 2000), p. 14.

(5) Cecil A.L. Pearson and Samir R. Chatterjee, "Managerial work roles in Asia: An empirical study of Mintzberg's role formulation in four Asian countries," Journal of Management Development 22, nos. 7/8 (2003) pp. 694-707.

(6) Mintzberg and Bourgault, Managing Publicly.

(7) See James Garnett, Communicating for Results in Government (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1994).

(8) See, for example, Quy Nguyen and Henry Mintzberg, "The rhythm of change," MIT Sloan Management Review 44, no. 4 (Summer 2003) pp. 79-84.
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Title Annotation:The Nature of Managerial Work
Author:Thomas, Paul G.
Publication:Canadian Public Administration
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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