b-school, Management, MBA

Mintzberg and his analysis from observation of managerial work (updating from 1916 to 1971)

After a weekend at a hectic pace, I want to recall a comment to my last post by my fellow blogger David, an economist from Barcelona. I was talking of management and he referred to an analysis made by Mintzberg in October 1971. This analysis was important in its moment because it wided the scope on management and addressed the problem of defining what a manager really was.

Minzberg started out with from Henry Fayol’s first definition of manager dated from 1916: managers plan, organise, coordinate and control. Mitzberg wanted to test if that 50-year-old definition still stood.

He decided to conduct a research study seeking to identify what managers actually did.

He used a method he called structured observation: he observed for one week periods the whereabouts of executives from five organisations, ranging from middle-sized to large: a consulting firm, a school, a technology firm, a consumer goods manufacturer and a hospital.

The results are still interesting 36 years later. I’ll write about my interpretation in the next post, right now I just want to make them available to you.


These are the characteristics that Mintzberg identified for managers:

  1. The manager performs a great quantity of work at an unrelenting pace. That means no rest at all and no scape from a managerial mindset, even during off hours. They’re always managers, seeking for new opportunities.
  2. Managerial activity is characterised by variety, fragmentation and brevity. He observed that managers preferred low-duration tasks and even encouraged interruption. They even alternated trivial and significant activity with no identifiable pattern.
  3. Managers prefer issues that are current, specific and ad hoc. The non-programmed issues went straight forward and the routine reports were left behind. There was a preference for everything out-of-family and new interesting or unexpected things. Not a lot of attention for the weekly report though.
  4. The manager sits between his organisation and a network of contacts. The idea of networking is not new at all. Mintzberg already observed its importance 36 years ago. They were also nodes in a great network, sometimes linked to busier nodes they relied upon.
  5. The manager demonstrates a strong preference for the verbal media. He observed how the documents that finally made it to the managers were highly routinised, so they relied more upon verbal forms of communications such as informal chats and structured meetings, where there was an important flow of informal communication too.
  6. Despite the preponderance of obligations the manager appears to be able to control his own affairs. Apparently, specially from a formal point of view, the manager would be moving towards completing requests from others, but in fact, he exploits those situations towards his goals, transforming problems into chances. (If he is not engulfed by them)

About the roles a manager takes he identified a few interpersonal roles:

  • figurehead: as a symbol, both inside and outside the organisation
  • leader: related to their subordinates, the leadership role
  • liaison: putting in contact separated parts of the organisation
  • disseminator: transferring information within and with other organisations

Informational roles:

  • nerve center: connecting the different parts of the organisation, by formal and informal channels, and interchanging defined and also ambiguous information
  • disseminator: in this case referring to communication from the top down. Values, ideas, preferences to the organisation.
  • spokesman: from the organisation to outside.

And decisional roles, related to strategy-making:

  • entrepreneur, the manager as an initiator and an instrument of change in his organisation.
  • disturbance handler, this is not focused on voluntary change but on changes, sometimes contingencies or even emergencies, that just appear and need to be handled.
  • resource allocator in several ways: his own work, his subordinates’ work, the organisation resources. That means a wide range of activities: from delegating, designing the structure of work, to supervising or authorising relevant decisions. (Even deciding what’s relevant and what’s not)
  • negotiator, inferred from his different roles in the organisation, he will have to negotiate (inside the organisation, outwards with the different stakeholders, and so on)

And about the task of preparing managers, he held an opinion not very different than the one exposed in the previous post that he still holds today: the manager can learn more about his roles in the organisation, those that are exposed above, by means of reviewing all of them and trying to improve the way they are performed, improving his skills and acquiring new ones. He didn’t explicitly said so but his practical approach to the subject was an indication that a lot of practice would be needed for a manager before attaining new skills.


12 thoughts on “Mintzberg and his analysis from observation of managerial work (updating from 1916 to 1971)

  1. Thank you for the reference you’ve made to my comment. Although the methodology is very weak (what would have happened if the manager he’d chosen were a la Fayol?), his result made sense. Indeed, his findings are still valid and usable.

  2. David says:

    I’m surprised you still have time for Aristotle and Veblen. I keep for myself your moderate view on Nozick’s liberalism.


    Anyway, good luck with your studies In Britain

    By the way, why not a Catalan version of this interesting blog?

  3. For David from Economing

    You’re right. The methodology has weak points, but the conclusions are outstanding. I wonder if he was only seeking to justify what he’d already sensed and synthetised about management, because he will evolve somewhat, but he won’t radically change any thought for the next 36 years.

    Sometimes we make up our mind even before we are able to perceive, and the rest of the time that we are supposed to be debating an issue we are only justifying our decision.

    For David from ESADE
    David it’s been a pleasure to have been learning with you as a teacher 🙂 and the history of economic thought has been so interesting that it has opened many new windows in my mind.

    It’s sort of adding a third dimension to economic knowledge. You have the concepts, but not only the final melee, but the way they were built by humans, step by step, how they evolved, how they contradicted each other, many whys that are underlaying all kinds of economical topics.

    About Nozick’s libertarianism: of course he was a libertarian, as opposed to Rawl’s thesis. (that he could have shared in his youth, when he was a member of the student New Left and a true believer in socialism)

    But even after following von Mises of the Austrian school, and after his conversion to the minimal state, he wasn’t very happy being associated to the New Right.

    While he opposes socialism and liberalism with the idea that everyone is able to dispose of his things as he sees fit, he is also opposing anarchism by defending the need for a minimal state. A minimal state that would monopolise violence derived from everyone’s right to defend himself. That’s why he’s still an in-between. For Nozick, there are limits.

    Where? He set the limits to “doing what you see fit” in the obligation not to violate anyone else’s rights. That includes freedom and the ability to claim as yours the fruits of your labour.

    The “night watchman” state that Nozick proposes is far from the inexistent state of anarchism (or should I say anarcho-capitalism in this case… in fact anarchists and anarcho-capitalist wouldn’t agree on many things because the first would think of equality as a good thing, the latter wouldn’t) where even justice and protection would be delivered by private means. All citizens are to be protected by the minimal state opposed to the private security agency that the inexistence of the state would bring. In that case you’d only be protected if you had enough resources. Otherwise you’d have to deal with security yourself.

    Nozick thought that, even if protective agencies were to be allowed, controlling them and preventing their abuses would still be necessary.

    One of the ideas that he also defended, interestingly enough, is that a man that has his life and his properties ruled by third parties against his will, even being able to vote periodically, is still a slave. Not by choosing his masters he ceases to be a slave. Nice thought that many could share today.

    That’s the “still moderate” point about Nozick. Maybe the right expression would be “not too radical” instead. For all I know at least he substitutes anarchy for “minarchy”, needing this minimal state, still protecting life, liberty and property, but avoiding distribution of wealth.

    He also envisions that reality as only to be possible in an utopic state, made up of independent democratic cities, old-Greek style, inhabited by responsible citizens by a degree of moral and intellectual enlightenment that society has not achieved yet.

    Meanwhile, Nozick says, distrust politicians, be skeptic. (Funny how so many politicians have harvested so many votes with that argument and then kept doing business as usual.)
    Wish I had time for a Catalan version 🙂

    When will we be able to profit from your blogged thoughts? 🙂 (I don’t really care about the language in that case.)

    Best regards to both of you and thank-you for your comments


  4. Pingback: Beware of management gurus (and business cases) « Gabriel’s scarcity rent

  5. Pingback: Learning in a context of growing (mental ramblings in a saturday morning) « Gabriel’s scarcity rent - it’s management stupid!

  6. longman says:

    theres only 3 roles in interpersonal roles…you have added a 4th role which should be in the informational roles which is disseminator. please make sure your articles are clear form any fualts..

  7. Hi Longman. It is not a mistake.

    Although in the usual simplification disseminator is considered framed into the informational roles, if you actually read Mintzberg’s analysis of managerial work you will see how he actually considers this role both as interpersonal and informational. It is rather obvious that this role actually performs into both areas at the same time.

    Simplifications are useful, but they usually leave some information behind. It’s important to remember the assumptions behind every model in order to use it efficiently.

    These roles are neither isolated nor set in stone. Also coming from Mintzberg you can see the combined roles applying to different positions:

    1. contact manager — figurehead and liaison
    2. political manager — spokesperson and negotiator
    3. entrepreneur — entrepreneur and negotiator
    4. insider — resource allocator
    5. real-time manager — disturbance handler
    6. team manager — leader
    7. expert manager — monitor and spokesperson
    8. new manager — liaison and monitor

    Best regards and thanks for the comment 🙂


  8. emmanuel madzvamuse says:

    since its an assumption therefore one cannot really rely on his work alone bt use other theorists ‘ work like Henry Fayol

  9. Utsuroryu says:

    I enjoy Mintzberg for his contrarian views but Fayol published his FIVE functions of managers in 1916 (although it wasn’t widely available in the States until the English translation in 1949): Planning; Organizing; Commanding; Coordinating; and Controlling.

    Others have cut up the pie of what managers do differently. Drucker had: set objectives; organize; motivate and communicate; measure; and develop people. Daft had it down to four: planning; organizing; leading; and controlling. Montanan and Charnov had it down to three: Planning; Controlling; and evaluation and Feedback. But, you could contend that evaluation and feedback are two separate things.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s