Mintzberg’s destruction of Strategy

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Mintzberg’s keynote role at a conference on the MBA is a worry, but his latest foray into strategy is too serious to let pass. In Management by Reflection in S+B he continues his age-old mantra that teaching MBAs to work stuff out is pointless if not dangerous. He once sneeringly noted that MBA really stands for ‘Master in Business Analysis’. Well, he got his wish – working stuff out is now largely absent from MBA programs, especially in Strategy classes, and absent from executive strategy courses too.

This has been hugely damaging. No-one in Accounting, Architecture, Engineering or Medicine would argue that their profession is just a ‘craft’, or that emerging young professionals have no need to master the basics of their field. They certainly would not disparage training programs that teach ‘analysis’ as being trivial and irrelevant. We have reached a point where senior leaders are trying to run their organizations’ strategy with not only no idea how to work things out themselves [which senior folk should not do in any case], but no idea either what ‘working out’ they should ask their subordinates to do. To see the damage this has done, look at what having amateurs in charge of strategy in banking, retailing and a host of other industries has done for us – thanks Henry.

He’s not wrong in everything. Of course it’s a good idea to bring real-world cases into class. His aim of helping managers do a better job, not just get one, e.g. through his Masters in Practising Management is great.  And of course he’s right that you can’t learn all about ‘management’ in class – but no other profession would take that view either. You don’t get to be good at any of them without a lot of practice.

But as ever he goes to ridiculous extremes. It simply isn’t true that we know no more about business than biologists did before they had named the species. And it’s ridiculous to argue that managers will learn more from reflecting on just their own experience and that of a small selection of peers, rather than from the accumulated wisdom of the entire profession. If that’s how engineers or doctors learned, we would still be building bridges from piles of stones and sticking leeches on sick people. 

By all means help managers Henry, but butt out of strategy.

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