Episode 415 – Strategy and writing with Henry Mintzberg

Henry MintzbergHenry Mintzberg is quite simply a legend, and my personal business thinking hero. When I was studying his writings for my MBA I could only have dreamed that one day I’d be chatting about writing to him on my podcast – and sometimes when dreams come true, the reality is even better than you dared imagine.

Along with the nuances of management theory and social change, he revealed insights into his own remarkable writing process. And these elements aren’t as different as you might think: his insistence on the non-linear nature of writing and the importance of ‘cherishing anomalies’ reflects his disciplined yet emergent and above all human approach to strategy. 

Despite the fact that he has so many successful books to his name, Henry Mintzberg is suprisingly wide and creative in his use of other forms of content, such as video, in his mission to make complex ideas accessible. I particularly love the ‘Irene question’: what can YOU do to drive social change – within your personal life, community, business, government, even on a global scale? It’s a profound inquiry that challenges us to consider our own role in shaping a better world.

This conversation felt like an uplifting, enlightening, mind-expanding gift: I hope you feel that way too. 



The Rebalancing Society site: https://rebalancingsociety.org/

Henry’s site: https://mintzberg.org/

‘Minutes with Mintzberg’ on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLtiGzu7sz7w1zC7PdbspvLt0iQ99IxH1h

Alison on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/the-alison-jones/

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: http://proposalchallenge.com/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Substack: https://extraordinarybusinessbooks.substack.com/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Alison Jones: I’m beyond excited today. I’m here with Henry Mintzberg, who is a writer and educator, mostly about managing strategy in organizations, but not entirely. We’ll come on to that in a minute.

After receiving his doctorate from the MIT Sloan School of Management, he made his professional home in the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal, where he sits in the Cleghorn Chair of Management Studies.

He’s authored 21 books, which have earned him 21 honorary degrees, which is quite a good hit rate, and an officership in the Order of Canada and L’Ordre National du Québec. He publishes a regular blog, a collection of which was published as Bedtime Stories for Managers, and his current focus is rebalancing societies.

So first of all, welcome, Henry. It’s just great to have you here.

Henry Mintzberg: Thank you, Alison. It’s great to be here.

Alison Jones: You don’t realize, and nobody listening will realize, just what a thrill it is though, because when I was doing my MBA, it was a sort of standing joke in the class, just how enthusiastic I was about your management theories. It was such a blast of fresh air when you’re going through all this dry, academic sort of beautifully designed five forces models and so on.

And you had these wonderful organic visions for how businesses work. You sort of seem to be the only management thinker who realized that we were made of human people.

Henry Mintzberg: Thank you. Thank you.

Alison Jones: So anybody who was in my MBA class will be laughing their heads off right now.

But I would love to take the opportunity just to dig into that a little bit, that sort of human approach and your insistence on the fact that management is a craft, not a science.

Just, I mean, I’m guessing that that hasn’t changed over the years.

Henry Mintzberg: No, I don’t think it’s changed because science changes, craft develops and people get better. I guess shoemakers make better shoes now, but they don’t because machines make shoes now. So science makes shoes instead of craft. But yes, I think craft is kind of a fundamental practice of some kind, and it doesn’t change fundamentally.

The content of management changes all the time. The issues you’re dealing with, the crises, the new products, the new technologies, everything is changing. But not the practice itself. I mean, styles change, approaches change. I think a lot of it for the worse, frankly, in management. But the fundamental practice, I think doesn’t change.

I sort of use a triangle. Art, craft, science, and I think it’s mostly craft in the sense it’s mostly experience based, it’s not evidence based, not much. So there’s not much science. And the art, of course, is critical. The creativity, the creative side.

So it’s a lot of craft, variable amounts of art and some science.

Alison Jones: And I want to come back to the way you just described that visually, because I think that’s such an important component of your work. But the other thing that I really wanted to just get your sort of hot take on here was the idea of strategy, which I know you are quite violently opposed to the idea that strategy is something that you create, and here it is, and it’s served up.

You’re very strong on the idea of emergent strategy. I’m guessing today that’s even more the case than it ever was.

Henry Mintzberg: Yes, I have had a chance to poll probably dozens, if not hundreds, of groups of managers, and I give them the choice about, you know, to what extent after I explain what I mean by emergent strategy, which is a learning process essentially, you learn strategy, you don’t plan strategy, you learn it. You plan the consequences of the strategy you’ve learned, but you try things, and some work and some don’t, and what works best, you continue with, and what doesn’t work, you don’t continue with, and you keep doing that until you end up with a strategy.

And the other component of that is that anybody in the organization can be a strategist. So in IKEA, the idea for selling unassembled furniture came from somebody in the operating level trying to put a table in his car and it didn’t fit, so he took the legs off. And somebody said, wait a minute, if we have to take the legs off, so do they and that’s where this brilliant strategy came from.

 So it’s much more a learning process and strategic planning is an oxymoron, I think. It can still come from the top and entrepreneurs are brilliant at creating strategies, but they’re brilliant at it because they’ve got their feet on the ground.

Alison Jones: And that’s another organic metaphor of yours, isn’t it? That idea about strategy as weeds. See what thrives, what’s right for this organization, and it can come from anywhere. I mean, that must feel like a threat, I guess, if you are the CEO of a company and you feel that you should be the one creating the strategy.

Henry Mintzberg: Well, you know, Gerstner, when he took over IBM years ago, was the only one I ever heard say to the press, you won’t get a vision, a strategic vision out of me. And what he was saying, honestly, was I’m not ready. I haven’t finished the learning process. You know, we’re going through this. So he didn’t have any problem with that.

So there’s no reason why anybody should be ashamed to say that, but, you know, boards are anxious. We’ve got a new CEO and, you know, why bother with all this participative stuff? Give us your brilliant strategy. Well, often they don’t have it or find it. And so they copy other people or, you know, all the phone companies and banks run around copying each other’s strategies.

Alison Jones: Or they parachute in a management consultant who has absolutely no experience in the field and gives them a diagram and walks off again.

Henry Mintzberg: Yes, yes. Who’d do the same thing instead? They find out what’s popular and so on. Yes, this idea of a totally imaginative, creative, strategic insight, like IKEA with unassembled furniture, or the whole concept of Amazon, you know, they went through a process of learning all this and coming up with all this and you know, don’t forget Amazon started by selling books.

Alison Jones: Oh, we never do, yes. Rather unfortunate for the book industry, but that idea that you can only sort of really see that emergent strategy from this side of it. You can look back and go, Oh, of course, this is what we intended to do. Wasn’t that smart of us at the time. You are just sort of seeing what works, aren’t you?

See if it sticks.

Henry Mintzberg: Yes, yes. But it’s interesting how they extrapolated that into everything else. I think they’re losing it now in a certain respect because there’s all over the place, their site is a kind of let the buyer beware kind of site. You know, same items with different prices all over the site. It’s a big mess.

But the logistics are absolutely incredible and better all the time, you know, it’s only in the last few months here that I now get overnight delivery. I hit the send button at 5pm on Sunday and it appears on Monday. I don’t know. It’s amazing

Alison Jones: Yes. yes. It is amazing. And of course we could talk about the whole Amazon strategy, the way they’ve diversified, the way they’ve tried the things, the things that got quietly buried. But I really want to talk to you about the way that you communicate ideas because it is exceptional. It struck me 20 years ago when I was doing my MBA, it strikes me even harder now, that you have a gift for visualizing concepts and also for metaphors.

And I would love to ask you whether that’s a conscious thing, whether you’ve developed it over time, whether it started just by, that’s how the students learn best, or you were telling stories as a kid. Where’s that from?

Henry Mintzberg: I don’t do it consciously. I think I do it naturally. I just see metaphors all over the place or I see something and convert it. I don’t consciously go around saying, now I need a metaphor. So what, you know, grab some kind of metaphor and insert it. No, it’s these things just occur to me and I think that way. So I’m always looking for things that fit.

And, I don’t know, and I think I do what I implore managers to do, which is spend a lot of time on the ground, seeing things that are going on and picking up things that hit you and doing something with it. In my case, I do with it when I write.

 I see something, I’m trying to think of an example because something just occurred to me, I can’t remember, but I noticed something and it was in my writing a few hours later.

Alison Jones: Well, one thing that struck me quite recently was your recent video about shoveling the path through the snow to skate on the ice. And there you are with a shovel and you’re talking about the right boot and the left boot and it’s just, it may come naturally, but I think it’s something that others can emulate, that sense that you’ve always got an eye to a principle. There’s always the sort of the abstract concepts that you are trying to communicate in the back of your head.

And then when you are hitting reality, you can make that spark of connection. I think that’s a real gift.

Henry Mintzberg: Yes, I could tell a bit of that story because it’s really fun. You know, we have a house on a lake in the Laurentian Mountains, north of Montreal, and skating is usually something you have to organize. They do it on the next lake over, they make a rink that’s actually about three kilometers long, but they have snow plows that clear the snow and then they have what’s called a… I want to say a jacuzzi, I forget what it is, the machine…

Alison Jones: …not a jacuzzi…

Henry Mintzberg: …jacuzzi.

It’s a Zamboni, they call it. And it makes the ice, which is what we do for hockey games indoors. But one year I noticed that there wasn’t much snow. It looked like there was snow. Occasionally we get the lake as a skating rink, but very, very rarely. We need heavy rain in the middle of the winter and then a sudden cold.

But there was snow on the lake, and I went down and I kind of pushed it aside and turned out it was very light and fluffy, and there was perfect ice underneath. So I took a shovel and cleared it out. I made a rink of about 100 meters long, and the next day I called my neighbor, and he and I joined, we came together about, we were a good two, three hundred meters apart, and we came together, and then we saw a neighbor with a kind of snow removal thing, and he came zooming down the lake and made a kilometer long rink.

 And in the meantime, I was working with Jackie Rourke, who made an earlier video of me in a canoe and we were trying to figure out how to get the word out about rebalancing society. And at some point, I’m not sure how, it occurred to me that skating is the perfect metaphor, opening a rink with a shovel is a perfect metaphor because you’ve got to balance the left and right foot, business and government, but that’s not enough.

You’ve got to clear the snow and that’s what I call the plural sector. The third sector has to do it, clears the snow and then you’ve got to be balanced on your two feet plus the shovel.

So we made, it’s actually a very good metaphor. Works really…

Alison Jones: …metaphor and it works really well. It captures your attention, it captures your imagination. It makes you go, oh right, I see, I understand this differently now. And what I think it also illustrates is your ability to grasp different media. So, obviously, as an academic, you write papers, as a management thinker you write books, you’ve got a YouTube channel, you’ve got a blog.

Just tell me how that all fits in that sort of a whole ecosystem of different screen sizes of content, if you like.

Henry Mintzberg: Well, I’m probably the worst planner around, so this wasn’t conceived in any…

Alison Jones: Emergent strategy, of course, how could it be anything else? yes.

Henry Mintzberg: Right, how could I do anything else?

So, a guy named Sergei Romkin, Romkin, who suggested we could make minutes. We take these interviews and these podcasts, and I hope we can do it with this one too, and we give it to Sergei, and he makes minutes out of them.

And there’s about 30 minutes up now on YouTube. They’re called Minutes with Mintzberg. And they’re getting around and people could do a whole course. I mean, with 30 of them, that could be a textbook.

They’re all very short. They’re on strategy. They’re on rebalancing society. They’re on everything. They’re on skating and so on and so forth.

 So just came to be because Sergei had this idea.

Alison Jones: So, the idea of pushing boundaries with formats. You and I were just talking before we came on air about your latest project. The Rebalancing Society, I don’t know, project’s the wrong word. Mission? What would you call it? And tell us what you’re thinking in terms of getting the word out about that.

Henry Mintzberg: Well, it is a project and I haven’t used the word mission, but it is a mission and it is a calling and it is sort of a central thing to me. It’s also an obsession. For years, I’ve just been watching things going out of whack the way everyone else is. You know, everyone is watching this going out of whack and kind of like, what in the world is happening?

Here’s Trump back again and Putin, and the Middle East, and just one thing after another. Climate change, enormous amount of talk, very little real action except where the markets can benefit from building windmills and things like that, which is great. But in terms of stopping carbon energy, you know, the COP conferences, I call the ‘cop out’ conferences. They just don’t accomplish anything much, I don’t think.

And so it occurred to me I could kind of put this whole thing together in terms of all these things that are going wrong, all have common cause, I think. Including disparities of income and everything else, and the rise of populism and so on, which is the imbalance in so many societies and in ourselves as well as people. We’re imbalanced, many of us.

The globe is terribly out of balance. It’s out of balance economically, because globalization dominates and there’s no countervailing power to global corporations and politically, it’s out of balance because three superpowers sort of have the power and I’m doing an article called superpower corrupts and antagonistic superpowers corrupt absolutely. So everything’s out of whack and I’m trying to just convey this, I think, simple message, but it’s not easy to get people’s heads around it.

So, is it a mission? Yes, it’s a mission. It’s an obsession. It’s a project. But I’ve been at it since I visited Prague in 1991 and decided there were three sectors, and not to end the…. Capitalism didn’t triumph in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Communism collapsed under its own dead weight.

And capitalism has been triumphing ever since. And it’s destroying the people, the countries that have taken it the most seriously, which are the U. S. and the U. K. And it’s destroying their liberal democracies.

Alison Jones: Part of the challenge of what you’re talking about is that when you’re trying to get that idea across to people, there’s a sort of collective shrug, isn’t there? It’s like, Oh, it’s terrible. What are you going to do? You know? So the fact that you bring that third sector, the fact that you talk about our personal and public responsibilities, as well as the political sort of sphere, I think is really fascinating.

How do you see the route to success for this? How is this thinking, this message actually going to make a difference. How are you going to get that out there?

Henry Mintzberg: So I call this the Irene, I call something the Irene question. Irene is the wife of a friend of mine who’s a doctoral student of mine at the time, who read an initial draft of Rebalancing Society and said, I know it’s terrible. I never thought it was that bad. What can I do? And every time I answered the question, somebody said, what can I do? And no matter what I said, they said, what can I do?

So I developed a table. It’s actually, I’ve got a new, not that new, a couple of years old, but a site called rebalancingsociety.org, which is where people should really go. And under a tab called acting, I’ve got a table that shows what, that answers the Irene question.

I took every possible answer I could find and think of ranging from changing your attitude to recycling, to challenging trade tribunals, to getting rid of the stock market and which I’m serious about. And…

Alison Jones: Not in the gift of Irene though, or most of us. Not in the gift of Irene, that one.

Henry Mintzberg: No, no, no, no. But that’s right.

But so it’s a table of, it’s a matrix of what can I do myself in my community, in my company, in my government, in the globe to change my attitude, to reverse what’s wrong, to establish what’s right.

And so that’s sort of the answer, my answer to the Irene question.

But the other aspect of your question is, how is this going to happen? And I’m convinced the answer is reformation. Literally what Luther started in the 16th century. If you look for a model of massive social change much like what happened in Eastern Europe, these things happen on the ground.

Luther was a monk. He wasn’t anybody special. He was just angry at the Pope and he wrote these 95 theses on one sheet of paper and put it on the door of an obscure church and that started the Reformation.

You know how many, you know, in today’s terms, his students took the piece of paper off the wall and used the new technology, the new social medium of the time to make it go viral. And the new social medium of the time was the printing press. And I just confirmed this because I remember this number and I thought I was wrong because it’s astounding. Two hundred thousand copies of that piece of paper circulated around Germany and that area.


Alison Jones: It’s an amazing metaphor actually. And you’re right. It really is a parallel to what you can do today. The right message, at the right time, from the right person, in the right place. It can be dynamite.

Henry Mintzberg: Yes, yes, yes. And the question is how do we go from here to there?

Alison Jones: There’s much noise. There’s more sheets of paper on more doors these days, is the problem, isn’t it?

Henry Mintzberg: Yes, and you don’t know, you know, I keep trying to get the word out partly through the book and now through the website and with the pamphlet called For the Sake of Survival. And pamphlets are traditionally associated with these kinds of reformations. And…

Alison Jones: Makes me think of sort of 18th century Scotland and the coffee houses and that sense of, as you say, fermented discussion and things bubbling up from the ground.

Henry Mintzberg: And Tom Paine in the United States, who wrote a pamphlet called Common Sense that was read by everybody, I guess, in the new colonies, in the 13 colonies.

Alison Jones: It’s sort of the blog of its day.

Henry Mintzberg: Yes, absolutely. And so that’s, you know, but what makes something go viral at a particular point in time, who knows, it’s the kind of thing that could just happen while we’re speaking or it could never happen or it could take a year or it could take a month or it could take ten years.

Alison Jones: Yes, wish I knew the answer to that question. I’d be in a very different position if I knew exactly how to get something viral.

I do want to ask you about writing, though, because you’ve written 21 books and the blog and the video stuff and the pamphlets and the website and all the rest of it.

For you, writing a book now must be a very well established craft. You know exactly how to sort of get an idea and get it onto paper and get it out in a book form.

An awful lot of people listening won’t, what’s your best tip for them?

Henry Mintzberg: I wrote a paper that’s on my website mintzberg.org, called Developing Theory, about the Development of Theory, and it goes through how I write. So let me make a couple of comments. The problem with writing is linearity, okay? Writing is linear. There’s a first word of a book, and there’s a last word of the book, and every other word in that book is in sequence, unless you got a few diagrams here and there, but the text is in sequence.

But you’re not writing about something linear unless you’re writing a diary. If you’re writing a diary, it’s linear, but most other things, you know, if I’m writing about what I’m looking at on the screen, somebody said, well, Henry, what are you looking at right now?

Well, I’m looking at you. I’m looking at the color of your top. I’m looking at the black around. I’m looking at me waving my hands. You know, there’s no place to start. There’s no logical place to start. You just have to put it together coherently. And so number one is getting something in linear order that’s not linear, without constantly going back and recycling back. So you have to read the last chapter before you read the first chapter.

The second thing I would say about insightful writing is, and it’s in that paper, is to cherish anomalies. Cherish anomalies. The most important things you have to develop theory or to develop concepts is some anomaly that just doesn’t fit.

And I think weak writers dismiss them like, well, that’s the outlier. And strong writers say, if I can figure that out, I’ve got a clue here. Famous story.

Alison Jones: …That feels like a good principle for management too.

Henry Mintzberg: What’s that?

Alison Jones: That feels like a good principle for management too.

Henry Mintzberg: Yes, absolutely, yes, yes. Watch out for anomalies. Because one customer making one use of your product could change your whole business. Exactly. So it’s a good lesson for managers as well. Cherish the anomalies. You can’t do nothing but anomalies. If you’re a manager, you’ve got a lot of things to attend to besides anomalies.

But if you’re a writer, there’s maybe just a few things you put aside here and there saying, you keep coming back, coming back, coming back. And eventually, if you find a place for it, you might have something really profound.

So, I mean, other than that, I write in the morning. I concentrate. If I can’t get anywhere, usually I’ll just sit and wait and keep trying.

Discipline is very important. Don’t give up. I do draft, after draft, after draft. Typically every chapter of a major new book, not a kind of rewrite or something, goes through about 10 drafts, I would guess. And I’m talking about serious drafts, I’m talking about major rewrites.

Alison Jones: I think that’s really encouraging for people to hear, because what can happen is that you are writing your book, it’s the first draft, and then you pick up a book by Henry Mintzberg and you think, what’s the point? I can’t write like this. And you don’t realize that yours didn’t start in the form that they’re consuming it now.

So it’s very empowering, I think, you know, once your book, which is so perfect now, was the first draft that needed 10 revisions.

Henry Mintzberg: If anybody saw these first drafts, they would laugh. I mean, I read some of this and I say, what was I, you know, what was I smoking? You know, when I wrote that, like, how in the world could I have written anything like that? But of course, nobody gets to see it till it feels polished. And for me, polished is a very visceral thing.

 I will read it over and just keep changing, keep changing, even just a blog. I’ll keep changing, keep changing, and then at some moment it’s like, yes, it’s okay now. So I have to satisfy myself, and, I’m a dreadful critic of my own work. I’m terrible.

Alison Jones: It’s fascinating getting that insight into how you work. Thank you. I’m sure that’s going to really encourage a lot of people.

I always ask my guests for a recommendation as well. It’s often a business book, but it doesn’t have to be. What book do you think that anybody listening should read if they haven’t already?

Henry Mintzberg: Hmm. I should have thought about that, because you warned me about that. Would be easy, there must be all kinds of books that I… you know what, I’m going to say something else. I’m going to say something different. There’s a guy named Derek Sivers who does some short videos and does all kinds of things. And he’s done a short video about leadership, about the importance of followership in leadership. If you go on YouTube and you just put leadership dancing, it’ll come up first.

So it’s not a book, but it is so startling. That’s the first thing that comes to my mind. But you know, I’ve read fabulous books lately, but not really management books. You know, Harari’s work is extraordinary.

Just his thinking is absolutely brilliant.

Alison Jones: Sapiens is amazing. And I was thinking about Sapiens actually, when you said about the problem of linearity because that’s what he said. We have to tidy up our thinking because it’s a hot mess. It’s associative and we don’t think in straight lines, but somehow to communicate those ideas, we have to impose some sort of sequence on them.

Henry Mintzberg: Exactly, exactly. You know, I’m sort of playing with… Harari talks at some point about millennia of indifference. That if you need a word for what Harari is saying when he kind of alludes to, well, you know, was it a big mistake to stop hunting and gathering? He talks about the indifference of the human race, that we don’t give a damn about anybody or anything. We just ride roughshod over everything. So we have millennia of indifference.

Then Pinker comes along and talks about centuries of progress. And when he talks about nuclear war, which could wipe us all out, he is kind of a bit dismissive about this because it’s all centuries of progress.

 And what I’m trying to do is to discuss decades of imbalance. And so what’s going to come of all three? Well, I think the millennia of indifference are setting up the decades of imbalance and progress is enabling it to happen because there’s progress, which is also wonderful, also involves nuclear weapons and social media and everything else.

 So it’s kind of… I’d love to do a kind of podcast on that or something.

Alison Jones: Definitely a diagram in there, isn’t there?

Henry Mintzberg: Yes, right, yes, but I’m not in that company. So, so but anyway.

Alison Jones: Brilliant recommendations. Thank you. And I think I know the video you’re talking about, and it is hilarious. So yes, I love it. It’s the guy dancing. I’m not going to spoil it. If you haven’t seen it, go and see it.

Henry, it’s been such a pleasure, so interesting talking to you. Thank you so much for your time.

If people want to find out more about your work, more about your imbalancing society, I’m talking about the wrong thing, balancing, rebalancing society, imbalancing society is a completely different project, sorry, where should they go?

Henry Mintzberg: Well, there’s the book by that title, but the website is quicker and newer and more prescriptive. So that’s rebalancingsociety.org, one word dot org. And there’s my own, Mintzberg.org, which has all my stuff, which we’re trying to update, so it should be updated in the next couple of weeks.

Alison Jones: So by the time this goes out, hopefully, and of course the Mintzberg Minutes on YouTube. Definitely worth a watch.

Henry Mintzberg: Mintzberg Minutes on YouTube, and Mintzberg.org/blog which you can sign up to on LinkedIn or Twix, Twixer I call it now, T W I with a capital X E R.

Alison Jones: Great. Now that’s actually helpful. Thank you. I will use that.

Henry Mintzberg: Yes.

Alison Jones: I’ve been struggling with that.

Henry Mintzberg: And you can sign up on MailChimp directly, whatever. So yes, so there’s that.

Alison Jones: I’ll get all those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com.

I don’t think anybody’s going to have a problem finding you if they just type in Mintzberg into Google, unlike Jones, for example. So, but I really encourage you to do because the way that you use the different media really is… it’s inspiring, it’s creative, and it makes the impact, which is what we need.

So thank you.

Henry Mintzberg: Thank you, Alison. I appreciate it.

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