Managers Not MBAs, by Henry Mintzberg

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I read about this book in the Economist, and the concept intrigued me. I’ve been in the business world long enough to develop the typical technologists’ disdain for MBAs and their lack of domain knowledge and emphasis on numbers that are probably meaningless. I was looking forward to reading this book to gain more armament in my arguments against such a restrictive view of management. Alas, it did not deliver in that promise.

The problem is that Mintzberg takes it for granted that MBAs and their analysis-centric view of the world are wrong, and that the more touchy-feely know-your-business synthesist view of management is right. He spends the first several chapters of the book ranting about the evils of the MBA, and how it is damaging not only companies, but the MBAs themselves, as well as society as a whole. That part of the book uses a lot of “Clearly”s and “Obviously”s, which up the emotional quotient, but aren’t actually an argument. I think I agree with his viewpoint for the most part, but he makes a very poor case for it.

The second half of the book is his recommendation as to what management education should look like. Naturally, it is a description of the program that he helped to design, the International Masters in Practicing Management. I didn’t find this part very interesting, and had to slog through it.

So, short answer, don’t bother reading this. I’ll tell you everything of interest in the book in the following list of bullet points.

  • Good managers need to know their business. There are some business functions that can be abstracted out (such as finance, marketing and accounting – he claims that the MBA should be more accurately titled the Masters in Business Analysis), but management is a synthesis of these functions and of the specific business and of the specific company and of people skills.
  • To benefit from management education, you need to have been a manager. His chapter “Wrong People” claims that taking kids who have only a couple years of business experience and expecting them to learn how to manage in an MBA program is ludicrous. Only with some experience as a manager will students appreciate the classes and be able to integrate them with their own experience to learn. Hence, the IMPM program only takes experienced managers.
  • Business schools that teach by cases, led by Harvard, present an artificially simplified world. As Klein’s book suggests, real experts have an enormous wealth of context-specific knowledge that they draw upon to make good decisions. A business school student designing a response to a case in a field where they know nothing will, by necessity, design an incomplete solution. Business school may give them the confidence to jump in without knowing anything after graduating, but it doesn’t ameliorate the fact that they don’t know anything.
  • The emphasis on numbers in MBA programs provides a false sense of objectivity. Without understanding the numbers and where they come from, “such data tends to be categorical more than nuanced, often reducing complex realities to simple measures, mostly recent.” (p. 101) While “soft” numbers may be unreliable, they can provide a better view of the big picture. I obviously agree.
  • The IMPM program is interesting not only because it takes only experienced managers, but also because of its structure. It is set up as a set of five two-week modules, each focusing on a different aspect of management (Reflection, Analysis, Context, Collaboration and Action), with each module being taught at a different university around the world. For instance, the Context module is taught in India, so the setting reinforces the importance of learning the local context when managing. The modules are spread at approximately three month intervals, so that the manager has a chance to go back to his company and begin to integrate the new ideas he’s learned of and thought of into his daily work before getting a new set of concepts. It’s all about taking general theories and figuring out how to apply them in your specific context. Given my recent context kick, I really like that part of the program.
  • I like his discussion of theory.

    “It would be nice if we could carry reality around in our heads and use it to make our decisions. Unfortunately, no head is that big. So we carry around theories, or models, instead: conceptual frameworks that simplify the reality to help us understand it. Hence, these theories better be good! The university is society’s instrument for developing and disseminating good theories.” (p.249)

    Understanding the difference between the map and the territory is huge, and something that I wish we could teach better. Good maps (aka theories) are enormously helpful, and worthy of sharing. But at some point, you have to connect the theories with your particular situation, your territory. And the IMPM program sounds like it gives its students a chance to do that.

  • The other interesting thing about the IMPM program is that it tries to give almost 50% of classroom time over to discussion among the students. Since the students are experienced managers themselves, they often have valuable insight into how a certain idea has worked (or not) in their own experience. Mintzberg says that the teachers often learned a lot during such discussions and were able to use it to help focus their presentations the next time.

So that’s it. Pretty much everything interesting in a 400 page book distilled down to a few bullet points. It’s a pity. I was really looking forward to this book, but I can’t recommend it at all.

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