Phronesis: Practical Wisdom for Leaders with Scott Allen

Dr. Henry Mintzberg - On Eggs & Airlines

August 16, 2023 Scott J. Allen Season 1 Episode 188
Phronesis: Practical Wisdom for Leaders with Scott Allen
Dr. Henry Mintzberg - On Eggs & Airlines
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Dr. Henry Mintzberg is a writer and educator, mostly about managing originations, developing managers, and rebalancing societies (his current focus). After receiving his doctorate from the MIT Sloan School of Management, he has made his professional home in the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal, where he sits in the Cleghorn Chair of Management Studies, with extensive stints along the way in England and France. He has authored 21 books, earning him 21 honorary degrees and an offficership in the Order of Canada. He publishes a regular blog, a collection of which was published as Bedtime Stories for Managers. He co-founded the International Masters Program for Managers ( and the International Masters for Health Leadership ( as well as, all novel initiatives for managers to learn together from their own experience (

A Quote From this Episode

  • "I'm trying to rebalance society...the world just won't listen. I don't know why."

Resources Mentioned in This Episode

About The International Leadership Association (ILA)

  • The ILA was created in 1999 to bring together professionals interested in studying, practicing, and teaching leadership. Plan for ILA's 25th Global Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, October 12-15, 2023.

About The Boler College of Business at John Carroll University

  • Boler offers four MBA programs – 1 Year Flexible, Hybrid, Online, and Professional. Each MBA track offers flexible timelines and various class structure options (online, in-person, hybrid, asynchronous). Boler’s tech core and international study tour opportunities set these MBA programs apart. Rankings highlighted in the intro are taken from CEO Magazine.

The International Studying Leadership Conference

About  Scott J. Allen

My Approach to Hosting

  • The views of my guests do not constitute "truth." Nor do they reflect my personal views in some instances. However, they are views to consider, and I hope they help you clarify your perspective. Nothing can replace your reflection, research, and exploration of the topic.

Note: Voice-to-text transcriptions are about 90% accurate, and conversations-to-text do not always translate perfectly. I include it to provide you with the spirit of the conversation.

Scott Allen: 2:20

Okay, everybody, welcome to the Phronesis podcast. Thank you so much for checking in. Wherever you are in the world, we have a returning guest today, really looking forward to this conversation. Dr. Henry Mintzberg is a name known by many. He's a writer and an educator. Most of his work focuses on managing organizations, developing managers, and rebalancing societies. After receiving his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from McGill University in Montreal, working in operational research for the Canadian National Railways and doing his master's and PhD at the MIT Sloan School of Management, he made his professional home at McGill. He's had extensive visiting professorships at INSEAD in France and the London Business School in England. He has authored more than 20 books, including Managers Not MBAs, Simply Managing, Rebalancing Society, and Managing the Myths of Healthcare. He's also authored 180 articles plus numerous commentaries and videos. He publishes a regular Twog, which is tweet to blog, as provocative fun in a page or two, beyond pithy pronouncements in a line or two, and a collection has recently been published under the title Bedtime Stories for Managers, and he's just released Understanding Organizations, Finally! He is an outdoorsman. Before we started recording, we talked about his adventures climbing Mount Baker, and, as we discussed last time, he is a collector of beaver sculptures. So if you want to know about beaver sculptures, you have to listen to the first conversation with Dr. Mintzberg. Sir, thank you so much for being here today. What is new in your neck of the woods? And I mean that literally. 

Henry Mintzberg: 4:07

My neck of the woods is in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal, for the most part. What's new is that the snow is old and it's melting. But what's new is we kind of moved up here during COVID and kind of never left. We keep an apartment in town in Montreal, but we're up here most of the time, and I'm trying to rebalance society. Still, the world just won't listen. I don't know why. 

Scott Allen: 4:32

Well, I am so excited for this conversation today. You have a new, well, you have a couple of new books, but let's maybe start with understanding organizations. Finally, what are a couple of themes that you want listeners to know about that you explore in this latest book, sir? 

Henry Mintzberg: 4:52

Well, the first thing is we just don't understand organizations. Strangely enough, we live in them. You know, if you figure out the number of organizations that we function with every day of our lives, how many organizations are connecting you and I together right now? Scott, probably six or eight If you think of all the phone companies and laptops and your organization and McGill and everything else. So we live in organizations, we function in organizations, yet we don't understand them. You want to understand yourself? Just walk, go into a bookstore, and go inside into the psychology section. You want to understand the economy? Open any blog or newspaper. You want to understand organizations, where do you go? I wrote understanding organizations. Finally, that's the main point. That's the number one point. Second one is we mix them all up, we mix. You know we got consultants coming into hospitals pretending they're like factories, which actually is a quote from Harvard's best-known professor of healthcare, who said hospitals are focused factories. Well, I don't know if you want your heart to be transplanted in a focused factory, I don't. You know, we mix up orchestras and airlines. We just get them all mixed up. And so the third point I'd make is the book is essentially about basic forms of organizations, and I call them personal, program, professional, and project. Take us through those. Take us through those, sir. So personal, we all know it's entrepreneurial companies or really any startup, even in business or even in government or NGOs. Organizations as they start up center around an individual, who are creating them, so I call it a personal organization. Steve Jobs at Apple, a classic example, although clearly it functioned as a project organization, but he was really dead center with regard to what it was doing. The programmed organization is your corner McDonald's or fast food company. Everything's programmed. Mcdonald's has us programmed, for goodness sake, you know we clear our tables. Imagine that we're programmed by that machine. So I call it the program machine. And by example of a personal organization in restaurants would be your corner greasy spoon, where the boss is doing everything. The professional organization or I call it the professional assembly because kind of an assembly of all these professionals working independently, like in a university or a hospital where the physicians or the professors are largely working on their own. And baseball is kind of like that. You know, in a double play it's highly coordinated but they're separate from each other. In baseball everybody's separate. Perfect board to play. During COVID, everybody's separate, except around the home plate where the umpire and the batter, and the catcher are together, but otherwise, everybody's separate. And then project organization is a high tech where many things are project film companies, construction companies, and in sports hockey, basketball, and soccer are all project organizations. When you pick up the ball or the puck at one end it's like a new project. You never know how it's going to unfold. Think of how different football is. By the way, American football is Canadian. Football was invented at McGill, my own university, but North American football is the ultimate program sport. Everything is programmed. You've got a hierarchy on the field. Everybody's lined up, even the cheerleaders are lined up. Everything's programmed. Very different from baseball, very different from hockey, and so on. A personal organization is skippering a World Cup yacht race. You know the owner is involved in the design and the construction and the skippering and everything. 

Scott Allen: 8:46

Well, I love how your mind kind of thinks about the world because you're just so skilled at putting things into different places and helping us make sense of them. Well, let's see, how would I phrase this? It's not different buckets, but it's just different categories, and then we can almost look at them as objects and look at them a little bit differently. So what are the ramifications of seeing these organizations, these four distinct types of organizations? What does that mean? 

Henry Mintzberg: 9:17

Well, for one thing, don't try and run one like the other. You know one of the business schools here in Quebec years ago hired the president of a trucking company to be the dean of business. You can imagine what that did to the place. You know the good trucker professors left and the others stayed. You know he didn't understand the difference. Businesses of hospitals often don't understand that these are professional organizations. They're not like mass production companies or retail stores or whatever. So the key thing is you've got to appreciate and understand those differences in order to manage them. On the other hand, you can never be a pure one of any of those things. You can't be a pure program machine without any project anywhere. So you have advertising campaigns at McDonald's. So you do have projects. But you can appreciate that many organizations veer very much. The post office, and retail banking veer to one program, and investment banking is much more project and plenty of hybrids. You know the symphony orchestra is kind of, you know, famous for being, for the orchestra, the maestro on the platform. But that's nonsense. It's not that. You know, the real leadership takes place in the rehearsals, not in the performance. In performance, they're an absolutely professional organization. Everybody plays to the notes that were written by Tchaikovsky. They don't play to what the conductors ask them to play. They're playing what Tchaikovsky wrote for their instrument. So they're almost playing a part, even though they're all playing together. 

Scott Allen: 10:56

So what are some different management approaches that need to be considered for each one of these? So if it's a personal organization, what are some ways of thinking about that organization or managing that organization that are unique? 

Henry Mintzberg: 11:12

Well, typically, you're trying to put the organization in the niche. If it's a new entrepreneurial company, for example, you don't want to imitate the big companies. That's not going to get you anywhere. You beat the big companies. You beat the big machines by being different. So the vision of the entrepreneur is absolutely key, and no better example than Steve Jobs, who took Apple completely away from where everybody else was in order to solidify it in its own niche, and to this day, that strategy still holds very strongly. So if you're running a machine, the key is efficiency. You don't want creativity from your hotel. You don't want to come into your room, and a jack-in-the-box jumps up and says welcome; you don't want that. You want your wake-up call to come in 801, not 801. That's a machine organization, whereas, in a project organization, you don't want efficiency; you want creativity. You want innovation. Efficiency kills the project organization because it squeezes out all the creativity, whereas, in a professional organization, it's proficiency that you want, not efficiency. You don't want the most efficient operation in the hospital; you want the most proficient operation in a hospital. You want really, really skilled people. You don't care if they have to take a little longer to do it right. 

Scott Allen: 12:34

That's a great way of thinking about it. So what do you see managers doing incorrectly? Essentially, my assumption is that a big part of that answer is you have the wrong management approach for the type of organization we're in. What other common mistakes are you seeing? 

Henry Mintzberg: 12:55

Yeah, absolutely. If you tell the chief executive of a project organization, like a French software company that I studied, don't get involved in the details. Well, this guy I watched. They had a new project coming up to do some software for the French post office, and I was observing him, and here he was attending a meeting of that project, and I kind of said, well, you know why are you attending the meeting of the project? He was the chief operating officer, and he said because it's something new, it's going to set a precedent, and I have to be there to understand it and help influence it. So in a project organization, you rise on particular projects that could take the organization somewhere, whereas, in a machine organization, you just want to make sure everything is absolutely, utterly efficient. So you're going to manage it very differently from, say, a professional organization. You can't tell the professors in the university what to do, you can't tell the doctors in a hospital what to do, but you can tell the workers on the assembly line what to do, or at least you've got people who are studying their work in detail and telling them what to do. So a very different mentality, don't mix them up. Hospitals are not focused factories. 

Scott Allen: 14:11

Anything else from understanding organizations before we move to bedtime stories that you really want people to be aware of is somewhat of a teaser so that they purchase the book. 

Henry Mintzberg: 14:24

Well, I think the sort of the most interesting change in organizations in recent times. I don't mean today or yesterday, because anybody who says to me you know what's the latest hottest thing in organization design, I say forget it, it's probably wrong and it's certainly not right for everybody. There's no but one best way. Yeah, that's a very important message. There's no one best way. What we're seeing a lot of in the last 20, 30 years is what I call organizations going outward bound. You know companies used to do a lot of vertically integrating and diversifying, but they did it in a way that their boundaries were absolutely rigid. When they vertically integrated and, sort of you know, bought their own suppliers or created their own customers, they brought them inside their existing boundaries. Same thing happened with diversification General motor, general electric, diversified, but within the structure of general electric. Okay, what we've been seeing in recent years is all organizations going outward-bound. You know platform organizations and outsourcing and networking and joint ventures as a whole chapter on that whole array of things and how they look together. You know a whole different set of arrangements organizations make for going outward bound. And the last message in the book is what I call design doing you know been very popular to talk about design thinking, but I had some correspondence with a guy who came up with that, and I said it's not really design thinking, it's design doing. You learn how to design organizations by trying things, not by sitting in an office and telling everybody how they should be reporting, but rather you let things evolve by themselves. You know, the best parks are not the ones that are paved by the architects, so people have to walk in an S -  they're paved by the people. If you want to know where to put the pathways in a park, put no pathways in. See where the people walk and then pave where they walk. Same thing with organization design Let people figure out, to the extent possible, how they want to work with each other, how they have to work with each other, and then pave those relationships. Hmm. 

Scott Allen: 16:40

So bedtime stories? Tell us about that. Bedtime stories for managers. 

Henry Mintzberg: 16:45

Yeah, well, I do a blog,  and a lot of them are about management. So I took about 40 of the best ones, and I published them as a book called Bedtime Stories for Managers because you can read them. They're all two, three pages, or whatever, not too long, so it's a good thing to read before you go to bed. So, for example, the first one is about managing scrambled eggs, and it's the story of Eastern Airlines which used to be the biggest airline in the world. One time I took a Brexit flight from Montreal to New York, and they served these things they called scrambled eggs. And I said to the flight attendee you got to be kidding, I've eaten bad food, but this takes the cakes. And she said I know we keep telling them they won't listen. Now, if you're running a cemetery, I can understand if you don't listen to your customers, but if you're running an airline, how could you not know? And, of course, the reason you didn't know was explained to me by somebody from IBM who came up to me after I talked about this and he said, you know, the president of Eastern Airlines was late for a plane, and he came running in at the last minute, and they bumped a paying passenger so he could sit in business class, where he was used to sitting, and so he wanted to apologize to the customer. So he went over and said found them in economy class somewhere and said you know, I'm so sorry. And so on, I'm, you know. I introduced himself and the customer said well, I'm John Akers, president of IBM. The moral of the story is, if you're running an airline or anything like that, any retailing, almost anything you can find, you can have your customers experience. You shouldn't be sitting in business class any more than you should be sitting in economy class. You need to find out what all your customers are thinking. So I think Eastern Airlines went bankrupt because of the scrambled eggs, and the scrambled eggs were there because the president never ate them, and if you don't eat your scrambled eggs, you can't run your company. Anyway, that's the first story. There's 30, 40 more, 43 more, I think. Give me one or two others. So there's one called organizing like a cow, and there was a famous ad again a software company, as it happens that showed a picture of a cow with the parts sort of that are butchered, shown on the cow. You know what I mean, like drawing lines drawn on the cow and it said. It said this is not a cow, this is an organization chart of a cow. And do you want your organization to run like a chart or like a cow? And I thought that was absolutely brilliant because we do these charts so that our organizations can run like charts instead of running like cows. Cows don't have any trouble, as they say in the ad. Cows don't have trouble integrating their parts, the heart and the lungs and the bowels and everything else work beautifully together. So why can our organizations work like that? You know? I mean, you know, if we as human beings function like that as well, then why, when we get together socially in an organization, do we have so much trouble coordinating? So this idea of thinking of yourself as organizing like a cow and growing strategies like weeds in the garden, you know, we think strategic planning is an oxymoron. Okay, we don't plan strategies; we learn strategies. You learn strategies by trying things and doing things. You know why K is in the knockdown. You know, in the unassembled furniture business. Because a worker tried to put a table in his car and it didn't fit. So he took the legs off. Okay, to get in his car. And then came the critical moment there, by that car. That's where the strategy started. Somebody said, hey, wait a minute. If we have to take the legs off, so do our customers. And that was the critical strategic moment. That's how strategies form. Okay, they're learned. Okay. By the way, 15 years to get it all right, you know. Imagine how much time just to get those little devices, yet to put in the hole to grab a screw, you know. So we have to appreciate that we learn strategies on the ground. We learn by interacting with our customers. We don't plan strategies. Strategies are weeds. In a way, they grow like weeds in a garden, you know. Except that, you know, the most notorious weed in our part of the world is the dandelion. But in Europe, they drink wine made out of dandelions. You know, they eat salads made out of dandelion leaves. So it's only a weed because you don't want it. And when you recognize that you're doing something and say, hey, wait a minute, we could be wanting this instead of treating it like a weed. Well, planning processes don't focus on weeds or find them. 

Scott Allen: 21:36

Learning processes focus on weeds and finding them Well, again, I just love how your mind sees the world and the connections that you make between scrambled eggs and the death of an airline. 

Henry Mintzberg: 21:53

If you ate those eggs, you'd know. Oh, you know what? There's a turkey walking. This is amazing. There's a huge turkey that survived the winter walking by, and you know what? It's alone, and it's huge, and there were seven of them in the fall. 

Scott Allen: 22:09


Henry Mintzberg: 22:10

Yeah, six of them, I guess, made a good Christmas dinner or whatever. They're wild turkeys. 

Scott Allen: 22:16

Well, I would love to go to a couple of places that are somewhat not necessarily provocative. I just think you have such a wonderful perspective on any number of topics, and so you've at times railed on the concept of leadership, leadership, leadership, leadership. Would you talk a little bit about, kind of how you see that topic and some of the downsides of such an incredible focus on leadership? I mean, this podcast is by all means called Practical Wisdom for Leaders, and so maybe I'm part of the problem. 

Henry Mintzberg: 22:51

Well, you know, if you use the word, leader or leadership, you have in your mind a single individual. If you need to make a good guide for minority size project teachers, yeah, yeah. But here, for example, let's bring up, you know, you've talked about this kannst in all sorts of ways. Um, we don't use the word leadership collectively; we use the word leadership individually. So the focus is on the single person. Even if that person is trying to engage other people, it's still the mighty one, the important one, the key one, and so on and so forth. I prefer the word community ship, which is also discussed in both books. I prefer the word community ship, which means that organizations that function well are communities, and the leadership, the individual leader of the organization, is responsible for supporting and enhancing that community ship. So I think community ship and established. In new organizations, yeah, you've got a lot more emphasis on the leader. But in established organizations, community ship is really key, and we need to recognize that. The idea that came years ago that leaders are somehow more important than managers, has been horribly dysfunctional. Horribly dysfunctional. Do you want a manager who doesn't lead, who wants to be managed by somebody who doesn't lead? Do you want a leader who doesn't manage, who doesn't know what's going on, who's not in touch? That's the kind of leadership we're getting more and more People who are disconnected, reading financial statements. They're not on the ground, they're not finding out. You know it was the chief executive of IKEA who was right next to that guy taking the legs off that table. By the way, he happened to be there and changed his company. So it's a whole different philosophy. When you look at leadership and management together. It's a whole different philosophy. It's in touch, it's on the ground, you know. 

Scott Allen: 24:37

So it's both that are critical. But then this community ship talks a little bit more about how you think about that concept. 

Henry Mintzberg: 24:47

Well, you know, being a part of a community is essential to all of us. In fact, part of the social problem today is that people are disconnected from their communities. A lot of these people are involved with gun violence or whatever. Are mainly what's the word? 

Scott Allen: 25:03

Isolated or...

Henry Mintzberg: 25:05

Yeah, I'm thinking of the other word, but yeah, they're isolated, they're disconnected, they're alienated. They're alienated from others. They may connect on the web, but that's not a community. You know, your gang on the web is a network. It's not a community. And, by the way, if you want to know the difference between a network and a community, just try and get your Facebook friends to help you paint your house, you know, or rebuild your barn. Networks are not communities, but communities are critical to all of us, and when we go into work and we're interacting with a bunch of people who we know and have gotten to know and gotten to like, and so on, it makes a huge difference which, by the way, is a major difference with people working exclusively at home, disconnects them from their community, their work community. It's okay to do it for some days of the week, but you've got to be in, you know, back in the office or the factory or wherever it is you're working, the hospital or whatever. You have to be there inside. 

Scott Allen: 26:08

Well, and to your point, I mean, I've had some really fun conversations in recent episodes with Meg Wheatley, for instance, who talks a lot about community right now, and Mike Mascolo, who's a social psychologist, talking about that need for community and that today we're lacking in community. 

Henry Mintzberg: 26:28


Scott Allen: 26:30

Well, I think you missed your calling. You've done a thing, this whole management thing. You've done okay in this field, but I think you could have been a comedian. I think there was a potential other path, sir. 

Henry Mintzberg: 26:41

I'm a comedian for the people around me. Actually, a number of people say that what they like most, or a lot, about understanding organizations is the humor in the book. You know, at one point, I say I'm trying to write this in a breezy tone, and then I put in parentheses how am I doing so far? And there's that kind of stuff throughout the book. So people actually like that. Look, it's not a heavy subject, but it's an important subject, and lightening it up makes it easier for people to understand. 

Scott Allen: 27:11

I agree, I agree. Well, anything else that you have on your mind these days, that keeps you occupied, that you want to touch on before we begin to wind down our time, sir? 

Henry Mintzberg: 27:22

You know, what's on my mind today is rebalancing society and what's going on in the world today, and the superpowers are back to taking dangerous moves like China and so on. We've got to somehow rethink. You know that's my rebalancing society effort a website called RebalancingSociety. org. We've got to find a balance across what I call not just public versus private and government versus business, but a balance across government, business, and community. I call them public, private, and plural. Community is a very plural kind of sector, and we need to balance a lot of what I'm doing so people can have a look at that website, 

Scott Allen: 28:06

It's important again, another just really wonderful way of looking at it. I think in our previous conversation I think maybe I called the episode something like because you had said it, you know what's wrong with us, what's going on, and you know, I think, your notion and your kind of thinking around the fact that we're out of balance. I think that's another really important concept to think about. That community is lacking, and then are we out of balance as a society? And at last, time when we were speaking, I mean, you touched on some countries that are more in balance and, of course, there are greater levels of health across the board, right? 

Henry Mintzberg: 28:48

Absolutely, and there's recent evidence, now some new evidence, that the stronger the sense of community, the healthier the society, the healthier the people. 

Scott Allen: 28:57

Well, it's going to be interesting to watch it play out as technology continues to advance at an ever-increasing rate. You know, do we move into a ready player, one society, or do we crave that person-to-person connection, and it's probably both end. But how do we fuel that person-to-person connection and prioritize that in our communities so that people have those connections and have that meaning in their lives? Yeah, Exactly. You also had. Last time you were with me, you had talked about Harari's book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. 

Henry Mintzberg: 29:33

Yeah, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. 

Scott Allen: 29:35

Yeah, Harari's book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, and I have to say thank you for that recommendation. That was an incredible read. Oh my gosh. 

Henry Mintzberg: 29:44

Yeah, he's brilliant, isn't he? He's brilliant. You know, I just did a piece called what is Dumbing Us Down? It's in the CEO world, and I give four different reasons for what seems to be dumping us down. Two of them I call social, one is the lack of community I mentioned, and the other is the pace of life. Two I call toxins. One is the chemical toxins of things we inhale and ingest and absorb, and the other I call electronic toxins, like the fact that we're swimming in this stew of so many binary bits all around us. But the fifth one so the fifth one comes from Harari, and he says he doesn't address the question quite the way. But in effect, he addresses the question, and he says the farther we get from nature, the more we lose it. And all four, the toxins and the social ones, all four of them are really getting farther and farther away from nature. So, I am in the country talking to you. Yeah, with nature right out the door on the turkey walking by. 

Scott Allen: 30:49

Well, and I mentioned Meg Wheatley, she has a new book coming out called Who Do We Choose to Be, and probably very purposely. We have a picture of Devils Tower in Wyoming, just that beautiful structure. I don't know if you've ever had a chance to visit that location, but it's just. She's a huge fan of national parks, and I know that she would agree wholeheartedly with the need to be in nature and to be connected to nature. 

Henry Mintzberg: 31:19

Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. 

Scott Allen: 31:22

Doctor, it is so fun to connect with you, to learn with you, to laugh at your stories, and to connect with your humor. And again, I just really appreciate your perspective on some of what's swirling around us. And again, you have a wonderful way of helping us make sense of some of those elements swirling around us, and thank you for your incredible work. 

Henry Mintzberg: 31:48

Thank you, Scott, for doing this. I really appreciate it. 

Scott Allen: 31:52

Be well, take care, go see how the turkey's doing, and we will talk again soon, sir. 

Henry Mintzberg: 31:59

Okay, scott, you too, keep well. 

Understanding Organizations
Bedtime Stories for Managers
Leadership, Management, and Community Ship