Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Manager's Job: Folklore and Fact

I just read Henry Mintzberg's "The Manager's Job: Folklore and Fact" in the Harvard Business Review -- originally published in the July-August 1975 issue, and republished in 1990 -- but still, very true today.

Mintzberg recaps the classical understanding of the manager's job, as one that plans, organizes, coordinates, commands, and controls -- borrowing this definition from Henri Fayol. He cautions however that, "at best, they indicate some vague objectives managers have when they work." It is by no means what a manager really does. If you're a manager, think about this. Are those really the functions of someone in command? Mintzberg goes on to site research into what a manager really does on the job to create his own definition of what management is. He first introduces and dispels four myths about the manager's job, and in the process, laying to rest Fayol's definition.

1. Folklore: The manager is a reflective, systematic planner.
Fact: Study after study has shown that managers work at an unrelenting pace, that their activities are characterized by brevity, variety, and discontinuity, and that they are strongly oriented to action and dislike reflective activities.

2. Folklore: The effective manager has no regular duties to perform.
Fact: Managerial work involves performing a number of regular duties, including ritual and ceremony, negotiations, and processing of soft information that links the organization with its environment.

3. Folklore: The senior manager needs aggregated information, which a formal management information system best provides.
Fact: Managers strongly favour verbal media, telephone calls and meetings, over documents.

4. Folklore: Management is, or at least is quickly becoming, a science and a profession.
Fact: The managers' programs -- to schedule time, process information, make decisions, and so on -- remain locked deep inside their brains.

Mintzberg then defines a manager's job in terms of ten roles or behaviours identified with the management position. These are:

Interpersonal Roles
Informational Roles
Decisional Roles
  Disturbance Handler
  Resource Allocator

The interpersonal roles, Mintzberg outline, comes from direct authority and involves interpersonal relationships. The informational roles arise from contacts both vertical and horizontal of the organizational unit, as well as internal and external to it. The manager by definition of this role, knows more than her subordinates does. The decisional roles arise from the informational and interpersonal roles -- the manager has formal authority, and also has the information to make decisions impacting the organization.

Hence Mintzberg's definition of management. It is these roles, working as "an integrated whole," that results in management. You can't have a manager without all of these roles, although an individual manager may use these roles to differing degrees. Mintzberg concludes with:

If there is a single theme that runs through this article, it is that the pressures of the job drive the manager to take on too much work, encourage interruption, respond quickly to every stimulus, seek the tangible and avoid the abstract, make decisions in small increments, and do everything abruptly.

... the manager is challenged to deal consciously with the pressures of superficiality by giving serious attention to the issues that require it, by stepping back in order to see a broad picture, and by making use of analytical inputs. ... the danger of managerial work is that they will respond to every issue equally and that they will never work the tangible bits and pieces of information into a comprehensive picture of their world.

The manager is challenged to gain control of his or her own time by turning obligations into advantages and by turning those things he or she wishes to do into obligations. ... First, managers have to spend much time discharging obligations that if they were to view them as just that, they would leave no mark on the organization. ... Second, the manager frees some time to do the things that he or she -- perhaps no one else -- thinks important by turning them into obligations.

Mintzberg crafts a great and thought provoking article -- an article that retains its relevancy despite being published 30-years ago. I recommend it as a highly informative and entertaining read.

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