Book Review: Simply Managing (2013)

by Ralph Soule

This is a review of Henry Mintzberg’s Simply Managing (2013), subject of Talking About Organizations Podcast Episode 14. This review is also intended to be useful as a summary of the work – to be read before listening to the Episode – but we all do recommend that you read the actual book, if at all possible, as it is as accessible and insightful as it is brief.

The book is an updated study of managers conducted by Henry Mintzberg based on observing 29 managers at all levels of organizations across a range of industries and organizational structures: business, government, healthcare, and pluralistic organizations such as museums and NGO’s. It is a condensed version of his earlier book - Managing, which was published in 2009. Both books address management as actually practiced, which the Author finds to be quite different from how it is taught and written of in academia. Simply Managing is designed to be of greatest use to practitioners, with its entertaining style and lots of boldface type to clearly emphasize the key points. As a manager in the US Navy for 30 years, I found much of the book’s insight and grasp of the challenges inherent in being a manager to resonate with me.

In Chapter 1 of the book, Mintzberg used his observations to debunk the conventional notions of what management is and what it is not. For all the changes in the professional world of management practice, Mintzberg concluded that the nature of management has not changed substantially in the 40 years between the publication of The Nature of Managerial Work – his seminal book about managerial practices - and Simply Managing. The practice of management is still messy, confusing, frustrating, and on many days, still immensely satisfying work. This has certainly been my experience, particularly the personal satisfaction one can derive from taking a tangled mess of priorities, a team I didn’t choose, and more things to do than could ever fit in a single day and negotiating a workable plan that people could believe in and follow. Like Mintzberg, I have always believed that the distinctions that management authors try to make between leadership and management are artificial. Any person in a position of authority over others who cannot do both is a menace to work with and a chore to work for. Instead, Mintzberg calls for executives to provide both leadership and management in the spirit of what he calls ‘communityship’. During Episode 14, Henry noted that effective organizations have a sense of community where members actually care about each other. It is precisely those kinds of organizations that I found most satisfying to be in as a manager.

 Chapter 2 of Simply Managing reviews the myths of managing, which Mintzberg labels as folklore. These include: managers are supposed to be reflective and systematic planners (too much interruption and need for action for this one to be true!), managers need information presented formally in reports and graphs (most managers prefer informal communication because of speed and context), managing is all about hierarchy and who works for whom, and managers control things like time and people (most managing is covert, through mutual obligation). I have three myths of my own to add that did not make the cut (Henry noted that he wanted to keep the book short): 1) people want to work for transformational, take-no-prisoners, managers (people trying to be “transformational”, like Steve Jobs, don’t listen well and can be very polarizing), 2) people just want to be told what to do (no they don’t - they just want other people to be told what to do), and 3) management is about making decisions (yes, but sometimes deciding not to make a decision is the best course of action – see Episodes 7 and 8 on Chester Barnard).

Mintzberg then presents a model of managing in Chapter 3. It is his attempt to create one diagram that collects all the pieces of managing together. The model is intended to show how action, or action through others, is supported by information. This is done through linking, dealing, and communicating. According to the model, managers get things done through framing (establishing context) and scheduling their time for what they think is important. Managers make decisions, of course, but not all decisions are alike; there are many kinds, including: designing, delegating, authorizing, allocating resources, and deeming (imposing targets on people). Thinking back to my own practice, a couple of other important decisions managers have to make are: when to act and when to leave things alone, when to leave a struggling subordinate in place (with more help, possibly) and when to remove them because they are damaging the entire organization. Mintzberg argued that some deeming is necessary, but he went on to declare that a little goes a long way in organizations. I agree with him that too much deeming leads to one of the greatest pathologies of management: managing by remote control. Another pathology from deeming that I would add is management by fiat. I have found that people don’t support or respond very well to manager’s priorities if they don’t believe that those priorities matter. Finally, Mintzberg called for a dynamic balancing the 13 competencies he described in the section on ‘comprehensive roles of managers’.

Chapter 4 presented a critical view of management, one that only look at one of, or a few of its many varieties at a time at the expense of the fuller picture. A manager cannot be successful by focusing on just a few skills and ignoring all others as if they were somehow less important. Mintzberg argued that all the factors of management - external context, organizational form, level in the hierarchy, nature of the work, pressures of the job, and characteristics of the person in the job - have to be considered together. One of the things that makes managing so challenging (and definitely not simple) is that it is so multifaceted. Henry wrote “what you do as a manager is mostly determined by what you face as a manager, which is not independent of who you are as a person” (Chapter 4, The Yin and Yang of Managing, paragraph 15). He then noted that management simultaneously exhibits aspects of craft, science, and art. Personally, I think it is much more craft than art, as it takes *lots* of practice.

Chapter 5 is the most important part of the book, according to Henry. In it, he reviewed the paradoxes that are inherent in the practice of management. He refers to these as either ‘conundrums’ or ‘tightropes’. The latter one is a good term because I have often felt, as a manager, like I was trying to keep my balance while walking above a congregation of hungry alligators. The conundrums identified by Mintzberg are: superficiality, delegating, measuring, (over)confidence, and acting. I recognized all of these and can think of more: being loyal to your leadership’s agenda and goals versus clearly communicating problems that may make those goals impossible to achieve, permanently derailing people by removing them from positions of authority versus leaving them in place where they impact the morale of the entire organization, and, finally, listening to the doomsayers who predict your change won't work versus implementing the change because you believe it is the right thing to do. As Mintzberg noted, the conundrums are always going to be presents, and so they can only be reconciled but never resolved. Like the varieties of management identified in Chapter 4, a dynamic balance between the opposing sides of the paradoxes is often the best a manager can aim to accomplish.

In Chapter 6, the final chapter of the book, Mintzberg noted that for all its complexity, challenges, and conundrums, it is still the real people who have to manage every day. Which is something they do despite their inherent flaws, a healthy dose of which everyone has. In a very creative approach to analyzing management failures, Henry used a format inspired by Tolstoy’s quote from Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own particular way.” This was followed by a review of personal failures, job failures, fit failures, and success failures (yes, that’s right!). These are examples of particular ways in which managers can fail. My personal favorite from the list is ‘job failures’, where people are put into impossible situations where no human without superpowers can succeed. I thought I was the only person that had ever had this problem - where success was not my chief concern, just mere survival. Accordingly, I found Mintzberg’s description of impossible jobs very validating.

Further in this chapter, he provided a framework for effectiveness based on Lewis et al.’s (1976) “No Single Thread: Psychological Health in Family Systems”. The threads of Lewis et al. parallel the framework for managerial effectiveness in context presented in Simply Managing. These threads are: energy level, reflectivity, analysis, level of sophistication, collaboration, productivity, and integration. The final two sections of the chapter address selecting, developing, and evaluating managers; neither one of which is done all that well in many organizations, according to Mintzberg. The trouble is that, in my opinion, much like the managerial challenges Henry illuminated in the book, this is really hard to do! So most of the organizations I have worked for made do with what they have either because it was the corporate tool, or because what they had was “good enough.”  

To summarize, I found the book to be thought provoking, comprehensive, and reassuring on many levels. While it can be appreciated by anyone, it is particularly valuable for practicing managers- its target audience. Throughout the book, Mintzberg gave voice to the frustrations and paradoxes that I have often felt as a manager, but was too busy balancing on the tightropes to notice happening all around as well. Particularly useful for practitioners is the model of management described in Chapter 3. It offers a means of framing the challenges associated with all the different roles a manager has to fill. The threads that describe aspects of managerial effectiveness in Chapter 6 were also very insightful and should prompt considerable reflection by the managers. They certainly did for me.