The Inescapable Conundrums of Managing
Management is a practice, not a profession or a science. To appreciate the true complexities of managing, we have to understand its intrinsic conundrums.
Today’s guest post is by Henry Mintzberg, author of Understanding Organizations…Finally! – Structuring in Sevens (CLICK HERE to get your copy).
Management is a practice, not a profession or a science. It is learned largely through experience, which means that it’s primarily a craft, although some of the best managers make considerable use of art. They also use some science, in the form of analysis, but nowhere near as much as in the professions of, say, medicine and engineering. And that’s a good thing: the overuse of analysis, especially an obsessive reliance on measurement, gets in the way of effective managing.
Watch a manager at work, or step back from practicing management yourself, and you can begin to appreciate the wide variety of things that managers do. They champion change, join projects, handle disturbances, do deals. Managing is collaborating and controlling, doing and dealing, thinking and leading, and more — not added up, but blended together.
All this can be seen to happen on three planes — information, people, and action. On the information plane, managers gather and disseminate information to help their people take action. On the people plane, they lead insiders to function more effectively and link to outsiders for the benefit of the organization. And on the action plane, managers do and deal: internally, doing means engaging in projects and handling disturbances; externally, it means doing deals with outsiders — such as suppliers, funders, and partners.
All this creates enough complexity in and of itself, but to appreciate the true complexities of managing, we have to understand its intrinsic conundrums. A conundrum is some problem that cannot be resolved, although it can be alleviated. Here are eight of them that managers face:
- The predicament of planning. This is perhaps the most basic of all the conundrums, the plague of every manager. How to plan, strategize, just plain think, let alone think ahead, in such a hectic job? Put differently, how to get in deep when there is so much pressure to get it done?
- The quandary of connecting. How to keep informed—in contact, “in touch”—when managing by its very nature is removed from the very thing being managed? Yesterday you were transplanting kidneys, today you are managing others who are transplanting kidneys.
- The labyrinth of decomposition. The world of organizations is chopped into pieces — departments and divisions, products and services, programs and budgets, vertical silos and horizontal slabs. Managers are supposed to oversee and integrate this whole confusing affair. So, where are they to find synthesis in this world so decomposed by analysis?
- The mysteries of measuring. How often have you heard that “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The trouble is that many of the most important things to be managed, such as culture and innovation, even management itself, don’t lend themselves to easy measurement. Hence, how to manage what you can’t rely on measuring?
- The dilemma of delegating. Managers who are well connected receive a great deal of information, much of it informal — opinion, hearsay, even gossip — all of which can be very useful. (What would you prefer: to find out in a sales report that you have lost your biggest customer, or to hear a rumor that this customer is thinking of taking its business elsewhere?) Thus, how is the manager to delegate when so much of their information is personal, oral, and often privileged?
- The ambiguity of acting. When a manager delays making a decision to better understand a situation, everyone else can be held back from acting. But leaping to action without adequate consideration can be even more dangerous. How, then, to act decisively in a complicated, nuanced world, somewhere between paralysis by analysis and extinction by instinct?
- The riddle of change. Constant change can be as dysfunctional as no change. How to manage change when there is the need to maintain continuity?
- The clutch of confidence. Managing requires confidence: who wants to be managed by someone afraid of the future? But is this any better than a manager who always acts fearlessly? Accordingly, how to maintain a sufficient level of confidence without crossing over into arrogance?
How can any manager possibly deal with all these conundrums concurrently? The answer: by facing them, to alleviate their worst effects. If each can be seen as a tightrope, then to manage is to walk through a multidimensional space on all kinds of tightropes: managers have to get the balance right. These conundrums are not distractions; they are managing!
Henry Mintzberg is a Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal, the winner of awards from the most prestigious academic and practitioner institutions in management (Harvard Business Review, Academy of Management, Association of Management Consulting Firms, and others), and the recipient of 21 honorary degrees from around the world. He is the author or coauthor of 21 books. His latest book is Understanding Organizations…Finally! – Structuring in Sevens (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Feb. 7, 2023). Learn more at mintzberg.org.
Excerpted from the book, Simply Managing, and applied in the book Understanding Organizations…Finally! – Structuring in Sevens.
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Love it! Nail on the head. You write it how it is, a catalogue of chaos, dragged together well by a good manager, poorly by a bad one. Heh, where does the ‘leader’ or language of such come into the plan!
I think conundrum #6 is the toughest in the VUCA world. Many thanks for the insights