Monday, April 19, 2010

Mangement As A Practise

Henry Mintzberg says Management is not a science, but it is a practise, in his new book, Managing. Recently, Strategy+Business interviewed him on this and other issues, which can be accessed here. This is a significant departure from the current managerial wisdom, which seems to assume that we know exactly what makes people tick, and use extensive modelling to predict and manage human behaviour. Mintzberg's timing is excellent, this comes at the back of the biggest economic crisis in recent history, a crisis which exposed how little we know about people's behaviour and how models and theories are not exactly good guides to reality.

Instead, if we follow Professor Mintzberg's prescription, we can make Managing a more involved, interesting business. However, before that, one possibly needs to answer a more fundamental question - why manage? It seems like a no-brainer, but people will actually have different answers to that question. Some manage because they have a job to do - they say they have to pay their bills. Others manage because they have to make money, only that - they would rather play Golf instead if they did not have to use other people's energies to keep their enterprises going. However, management is a human social activity, as much as anything else, and if inspiring and connecting with other people does not appeal to you, the task of management is only going to be a drag.

In the interview, Professor Mintzberg also points to the artificial differentiation between management and leadership. Leadership without management will be incoherent, and Management without leadership, uninspiring. The current disconnect between the two possibly comes from the fundamental misalignment of the purpose of management, indeed the purpose of business in the first place.

Businesses are social organizations, set up for the purpose of generating a reward for the entrepreneurs, which combine people's efforts, raw materials and opportunities, to solve social problems. Unless a business does any of these - generate a reward, combine resources and solve social problems - it will be unprofitable, uncompetitive and unsustainable, respectively. And, in today's marketplace, where global resources and opportunities create a confluence like never before, businesses have nowhere to hide if they fail on either of these counts.

If we are looking at the practise of management beyond the trivialities of seeing it as a job and naivete's like doing it to make money, we know it is about making a group of diverse individuals work towards a common set of goals, and making optimum use of resources without losing sight of the core job of a business - solving social problems. That way, management is leadership, and one can not really peel away the function of navigation from the person on the wheels easily.

Besides, coming back to the original point made by Mintzberg - management as a practise - our knowledge of what our objectives should be, how to marshal our resources and what external factors will influence our journey, are very limited. Hence, trying to hide behind statistical models and dated theories, particularly those devised in the context of a different culture, is rather useless, and likely to become value-destroying. As he points out, successful managers [and leaders] make it up as they go - and most cases, their experiences become grounding of future theories. But, if we truly analyze management excellence, it will possibly come down to conscious practise, backed by reflection and feedback, and a high level of commitment.

However, my own experiences of managerial life is that there is very little space for reflection. While there are structured tools - reviews, appraisals, brainstorming sessions - in order to enable precisely this, management today is dominated by the 'scientific' dogma, apart from the very unscientific egoism that comes in the way because of the human involvement in the tasks. So, while the theories tend to define the world of business in cold economic terms, the practise of management remains a deeply imperfect, largely political process, where reflection, unless it is imbibed as a value system, is impossible to do. This is possibly precisely the space where corporate coaches to do so well, allowing an impersonal, analytical, reflective perspective to practising managers; but more has to be done, and such reflection needs to become mainstream, routine activity, featuring near the top of a manager's agenda and priorities.


John Doe said...

it has been many years since i stopped reading articles and books on management.

the reason - to my mind, these are full of nothing but jargon.

the definition and characteristics of a good manager or a leader hasn't changed since the dawn of mankind. it is just that some of us can manage to rephrase and rebrand it to sell it to millions of aspiring managers around the world.

frankly i am yet to come across anything that is really fresh.

"Management is not a science, but it is a practise" didn't churchill know this? or say gandhi?

"Leadership without management will be incoherent, and Management without leadership, uninspiring." come on, all great leaders throughout history have been great managers and vice versa.

call me a philistine but i believe that there are two types of people. those who lead and those who read about leadership.

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Thanks. I agree with you mostly, though I would not say management books are completely useless. To be honest, I have picked up some pretty neat ideas from them. However, most of management literature seems to have two problems : One, they project the solution given by them is the only 'true' solution [not like religious books that way]; and two, most of them deal with a fairly narrow perspective and tries to apply this to solve great problems, like the philosophers' quest of a grand metatheory.

You are right about Churchill or Gandhi: They obviously excelled in the leadership trade. However, our lives are full of small people who do excellent work and keep our institutions going. If we turn our attention to them, sometimes the dichotomy of leadership and management pop up. I have known, in my experience, people who would focus on details but forget the big picture, and others who will do the reverse. The fact that both goes hand in hand is often ignored, both by management gurus who wanted to make a living about preaching leadership, and the common practioner, who wanted to manage but was taught leadership was to be left to great men.

Finally, I would differ that reading about leadership, and leaders, would necessarily exclude you from leading; I would say as a leader, one needs to reflect and a conscious reflective process can be built by studying leadership and consciously attempting to apply the principles in real life.

John Doe said...

"I would say as a leader, one needs to reflect and a conscious reflective process can be built by studying leadership and consciously attempting to apply the principles in real life."

of course. gandhi read tolstoy and martin luther king read gandhi.

however that does not justify the hundreds of management books crowding the shelves of bookstores today.

i know a book shop in which about 40% of the books are the so called management/marketing variety.

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Completely agree that good leadership literature is being crowded out. Also agree to your implied suggestion that best ideas about leadership is unlikely to be found in the business literature or in the piles of self-help books, but in more unglamorous places like books on History, Literature and dare I say, religion [one of my professors call them 'ancient knowledge management systems']. The management literature is claiming the territory now: scan the shelves and you will see 'Christ as a banker', 'Jesus as a CEO', 'Leadership secrets of Attila the Hoon' etc.

However, I agree, our approaches to business is deeply flawed in a way, and quite narrow, to allow ethical, sustainable development of people and practises.

John Doe said...

well being an indian we are all fed with our mother's milk the story how the indian education system was created by the british to produce babus. people who would help the raj rule over the multitude of indians.

now what were the characteristics of these babus?

1. they knew english (of course).

2. they were sticklers for rules and procedures.

3. they lacked initiative and drive.

sad to say the same thing (in my opinion) is being repeated all over again.

i have met managers (or should i call them mba's) from many of the big corporate houses in india. these are people who must have been pretty bright to begin with, considering that the entrance to the top b-schools are supposed to be tough.

but inside their workspace they exhibit similar characteristics.

1. most of them can't take decisions. i have seen this with my own eyes. in fact, the rule is decisions in committee.

2. they follow the letter and not the spirit of the rules. translated it means they act stupid.

3. they look down on people who are not in their peer group.

4. they are increasingly being divorced from the reality called india. they live in air conditioned houses, drive air conditioned cars, work in air conditioned offices and on weekdays hang out in air conditioned malls. not that i am against air conditioning, but they have lost touch with what the rest of their country is doing/thinking/feeling.

5. they think of small towns and cities of india as a backward foreign country. what they forget is that many of the companies they work for have owners who have come from these towns. i have heard many of these so called managers refer to 'those people' or 'small town types' in a way similar to how a victorian englishman would have referred to the 'darkies' of africa.

i can actually go on and on. and believe me, i am speaking from experience.

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Hey, I agree that managers are disconnected from reality, but why blame only managers? I do think there is a deep division inside India, one can see that as an urban/rural gap, but it is actually a privileged/underclass gap. We act as if only the privileged matter and they can turn India into a superpower; we don't seem to realize that we are not a superpower, and was subjugated for so long, just because we continue to tolerate that gap.

Also, I would not draw all managers with the same brush. I was just out to Goa attending a business conference. The conference was about a small company inviting their franchisees from all over India. Admittedly, their management systems would appear less evolved than the European companies. But, as I watched them, I saw that they have connected so well with the 'small town' India. They are thriving on that, by making training opportunities available in smaller cities where there was nothing. They conducted the conference in Hindi, which I understand but can't speak, and you could see the energy flowing into creating possibilities. In a few years, they will possibly become a big company, hire MBAs, go international and change their practises; but, as it stands now, they represent to me the possibility, opportunity and enterprise in India. I must admit, I am very impressed at this time.

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