The misconceptions that Henry Mintzberg highlighted in the The Nature of Managerial Work remain as true today as they were 25 years ago, says Trevor Merriden.
Henry Mintzberg has always been a little contrary. He has been terrorising fellow management writers for 30 years with his oft-voiced opinion (shared by many) that a lot of management theory is 'significantly devoid of common sense'. The years do not seem to have mellowed him. An article in 1996 in the Harvard Business Review was titled, 'Ten ideas designed to rile everyone who cares about management'. In it, the Montreal-based management guru stated that 'readers should be warned that I will insult almost everyone in one way or another. I must apologise to those I miss.'
Mintzberg first sprang to fame 25 years ago with The Nature of Managerial Work. As a six-year-old, he had wondered what his father (the president of a small manufacturing firm) actually did all day. 'All he ever seemed to do,' he recalled in the book's introduction, 'was sit in his office, sign an occasional letter, and talk.' After college, Mintzberg sought to get to the bottom of what went on behind managers' doors. In doing so, he highlighted the dramatic contrast between what a manager 'actually did all day' with what the lazier management theorists assumed they did.
The Nature of Managerial Work laid bare the sense of helplessness felt by the manager through the sheer volume of work that he or she was expected to undertake. The manager performs a great quantity of work at an unrelenting pace, he said; undertakes activities marked by variety, brevity and fragmentation; has a preference for non-routine and current issues; prefers to talk about problems rather than just write about them; and is subject to the degree of control that can be exerted over the work performed.
From these observations, Mintzberg categorised three major 'work roles' for a manager. The first role was interpersonal, with the manager having a key role as a figurehead to outsiders, as a leader motivating subordinates) and as a liaiser (maintaining lateral contacts). The second role was as a manager of innovation, as a monitor of information flows, and as a disseminator of information. The final role was that of a decision-maker. Mintzberg defined it several ways: as an entrepreneur responsible for the design and initiation of change, as a 'disturbance handler', dealing with non-routine events, and finally as a negotiator.
The self-justification of the manager is fundamental to the misconceptions of theorists about the manager's role. Mintzberg suggested that managers want others to believe that they spend much of their time musing on long-term strategy. In truth, they are reactive slaves to the latest development, at the mercy of every unfolding crisis.
With so many balls to juggle every day, it came as no surprise to find that the manager is overburdened with work. 'He is driven to brevity, fragmentation and superficiality in his tasks,' says Mintzberg, 'yet he cannot easily delegate them because of the nature of much of the information.
And he can do little to increase his available time or significantly enhance his power to manage. Furthermore, he is driven to focus on that which is current and tangible in his work, even though the complex problems facing many organisations call for reflection and a far-sighted perspective.'
While Mintzberg delights in knocking down fashionable theory, his book has far less to suggest by way of alternative. A mere dozen pages devoted to 'ten ways to more effective managing' is the major weakness of this book. But Mintzberg never makes any lofty pretence about prescriptive universal solutions. Three years ago, he told a British newspaper: ' I am not an intellectual. I'm a writer and researcher, a well-published waif.' And 25 years on, while the specifics of managerial work may have altered, the fundamental truth behind The Nature of Managerial Work still fascinates.