Henry Mintzberg Is Crazy

That’s what the Frankfurt journalist said. (Okay, more or less.) A radical. On the fringe. I know Henry Mintzberg. And he is not crazy. Michael Porter? The late Peter Drucker? They’re my candidates for crazy.

I agree with Henry Mintzberg almost 100% of the time. Did in 1970. Do so today. The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning is probably my favorite management book of the last 25 years. (I’ve offered up other “bests” over the years—but Rise and Fall has influenced me personally more than any other.)

I read Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive while a U.S. Navy lieutenant in the Pentagon in 1968. I liked it. In a madcap environment, his idea of setting aside an uninterrupted hour a day for planning seemed a great idea. Twenty-eight years later it still seems like a good idea—maybe someday (I’m only 63) I’ll get that hour.

In the meantime my life wanders on, chopped up and …

Chopped up and … decidedly non-linear. You see, Henry Mintzberg and I are avowed “non-linearists,” purveyors of the idea that managing (or, even more so, “leading”) is a non-linear affair. I’m not sure of HM’s mentors, but I am a direct descendent of Herbert Simon, the only management academic to bag a Nobel Prize. (Economics, 1978.) Simon coined the word “satisficing.” He said managers behaved, under the pressure and force of reality, in a non-rational, non-linear, best-they-can, on-the-run fashion. Simon often collaborated with James March, an emeritus Stanford professor—and one of my mentors. March, my great colleague Gene Webb, and Karl Weick were my teachers of the non-linear way called reality. It’s no coincidence that the first book Jim March assigned in the first class I took from him was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In general, good fiction is a better descriptor of organizational life than most non-fiction. I was reading only yesterday about David Cornwell (aka John Le Carré); the author compared Cornwell’s and George Smiley’s messy realism with the linear (good is immediately distinguishable from evil, etc.) world of Ian Fleming and James Bond.

Michael Porter’s world is Bond’s world, in a way. Think logically, develop a plan … and succeed. My world (and Herb Simon’s) is about doing the best you can in the midst of near chaos and madness—and hoping things work out in a mostly satisfactory fashion. (Looking at the shabby performance of the lion’s share of mammoth companies, such a “satisfactory” rarely sustains. Dirty reality intervenes.)

The point of all this, relative to the German reporter’s comment about Mintzberg, and implication about me, is that we are not “nutters.” We come from a clear academic lineage—and are simply recent manifestations thereof. We both have contempt for the rationalists among us. (Mintzberg, amazingly, may be a more vociferous critic of Biz Schools than I am.) Our “advice,” such as it is, comes from the premise of the ineluctable mess with which we (and our institutions) are permanently surrounded.

“We are in a brawl with no rules,” according to former Xerox chief Paul Allaire. To which I say there is but one answer … S.A.V. (Obviously: Screw Around Vigorously.) The deep philosophy behind this flippant phrase: To deal with a mess and to remove a little of the surrounding ambiguity demands acting, not talking—so one can see how the messy world reacts to your experiment.

To make a convincing argument would take 500 thousand words. Ah, through 15 books and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of columns and articles and Posts I have tried to do just that—describe messy reality and offer a few practical suggestions for dealing with it. In the meantime, you’ll find, naturally, a PowerPoint attached: “The (Necessary) War on Linearity: One Engineer’s (Unusual) Life’s Work.” The principal “chapter” thereof is titled, what else, “Think vs. Do.” (I’m also including a PPT that is a condensed version of the “Think vs. Do” chapter.) The last “chapter” is titled “Worth the Hassle.” It summarizes the areas that have interested me, and in which I’ve tried to be helpful, over the last three decades or so. There it is, my non-linear life. A far cry from my Civil Engineering roots. Damned reality, anyway.

Tom Peters posted this on October 26, 2006, in Strategies.
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