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Mintzberg on Strategy

Strategy is one of the most commonly used words in the business vocabulary, but
what does it really mean? In the book 'Strategy Safari; A Guided Tour Through the
Wilds of Strategic Management', Henry Mintzberg attempts to find the answer.
In order to explain the problems with strategy formation, Mintzberg uses the analogy
of a blind man and an elephant throughout his book.

We are the blind people and strategy formation is our elephant. Since no one
has had the vision to see the entire beast, everyone has grabbed hold of some
part or other and railed on in utter ignorance about the rest. An elephant is
more than that. Yet to comprehend the whole, we also need to understand the
parts. [1]
Having sifted through the myriad organisational approaches to strategy, Mintzberg
proposes a list of ten schools of thought on strategy formation each of which is
reflected in management practice. Each school has a unique perspective which
focuses on one major aspect of the strategy-formation process.

The Prescriptive Schools


Mintzberg explains that there are both Prescriptive and Descriptive Schools of
thought about strategy. The Prescriptive Schools are more concerned with how
strategies should be formed, rather than with how they actually turn out. The
Prescriptive Schools encompass:

1. The Design School. This school of thought, originally influenced by Igor Ansoff,
regards strategy formation as a process of conception. Organisations which
subscribe to the Design School approach try to match the internal situation of their
organisation to the external situation of the environment.
Mintzbergs critique of the Design School concludes that while the Design model
may be restricted in its application, and often overly simplified, this schools
contribution as an informing idea has been profound. [2]

2. The Planning School. This approach regards strategy as a formal process which
follows a set of steps from analysis to development through to exploration of different
strategy scenarios.
The problem with the Planning School, Mintzberg feels, is that strategists and
managers have tended to get caught up in the process, rather than take the model
and apply it to the real world. A further weakness of this school is that it was
founded on one basic model, which actually originated from the Design School.
While reams of literature have been produced in support of the Planning approach,
most of it has been based on the one original model, with hardly any research
carried out to establish how planning really works in practice.

3. The Positioning School. This approach sees strategy formation as an analytical


process. Supporters of this school analyse the business context of the industry they
are in and look for ways that their organisation can improve their competitive position
within it. The Positioning School is very much influenced by the work of Michael
Porter.
Mintzbergs criticism of the Positioning School is that it places too much emphasis on
analysis and calculation, which has reduced its role to strategic analysis, rather than
being about strategy formation itself. Strategy-making, he asserts, is in fact more
dynamic and less orderly than the process suggested by the Positioning School.
That being said, Mintzberg still counts the Positioning School as having made a
major contribution to strategic management, by providing a strong set of concepts
for practitioners.

The Descriptive Schools


The Descriptive Schools are less concerned with how strategies should ideally be
formulated, and are more interested in how they are actually made. The Descriptive
Schools encompass:

4. The Entrepreneurial School. Here, strategy formation is regarded as a visionary


process, usually driven by a charismatic founder or leader of an organisation.
Mintzberg concludes that the Entrepreneurial School is important because it
highlights certain vital aspects of strategy formation particularly the role of
personalised leadership and strategic vision which can be especially valuable to
newer organisations.
The downside of the Entrepreneurial approach, however, is that it links strategy
formation to the behaviour of an individual (the leader), without elaborating enough
on what the strategy formation process is. And when things go wrong, the only real
option for entrepreneurial strategists is to find a new visionary leader.

5. The Cognitive School. This approach sees strategy formation as a mental


process, using cognitive psychology to get into the strategists mind.
According to Mintzberg, the Cognitive Schools approach is less than perfect. This
school is characterised more by its potential than by its contributionThe central
idea is valid that the strategy formation process is also fundamentally one of
cognitionbut strategic management, in practice, if not in theory, has yet to gain
sufficiently from cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology has yet to address
adequately the questions of prime interest to strategic management, especially how
concepts form in the mind of the strategist. [3]

6. The Learning School. Here strategy formation is an emergent process, with the
organisation coming to realise over time what does and doesnt work for them. What
they learn is then fed back into their overall strategy.
Mintzberg believes that the Learning School brings a more practical approach to
strategy formation, which many of the other schools lack. It tends to be based on
descriptive research, thereby telling us what organisations actually do when faced by
complex dynamic conditions, rather than what they are supposed to do.

7. The Power School. Strategy formation here is seen to be a process of


negotiation, either between conflicting groups within an organisation, or between the
organisation and its external environment.
Mintzberg sees some aspects of the Power approach as valid. After all, power and
politics do play a significant role when strategy is being formed. This can be positive,
particularly when an organisation is facing massive change, and a clear direction is
necessary. But Mintzberg also believes the Power approach can encourage
divisiveness in organisations, which could well prove counter-productive.

8. The Cultural School. Unlike the Power School, this approach sees strategy
formation as a collective process, involving co-operation between various groups and
departments within an organisation. The resulting strategy can be seen as a
reflection of the organisations corporate culture.
While Mintzberg appreciates that strategy-making through co-operative means can
work for some organisations, he also has reservations about this approach. Culture
is heavy, established and setthis school can, therefore, encourage stagnation. [4]

9. The Environmental School. Here, strategy formation is a reactive process,


developing in response to external pressures on the organisation, rather than
internal ones.
Mintzberg is particularly interested in this school, not least because it is the only one
which puts the organisational environment at the very heart of strategy-making,
where all the other schools only consider it to be a factor in planning.
He believes its focus on strategic choice can be very useful to managers by
suggesting where they can find it or how to create it if necessary, and then how to
exploit it.

10. The Configuration School. This last school of thought sees strategy as a
process of transformation, whereby an organisation will change its approach to
strategy according to distinct stages or episodes in its history, e.g. a period of
entrepreneurial growth, or a phase of stable maturity. Mintzberg states that it can be
argued that this final school is a combination of all the others.
Of the 10 schools of thought, the Configuration School is the one to which Mintzberg
subscribes and contributes. He feels the Configuration approach helps bring order
to the messy world of strategy formation, particularly to its huge, diverse literature
and practice. [5] But he points out that the process involves a complex balancing
act, and cautions managers that too little configuration can lead to chaos, while too
much can result in unhealthy obsession.
Each of the authors 10 identified schools is a distillation of different thinkers and
approaches, each with their merits and weaknesses. Some, Mintzberg points out,
are just coming into fashion, while other approaches have seen their day.
The Design School was popular in the 1960s, Planning in the 1970s, and Positioning
in the 1980s. The Positioning School, although less popular than in its heyday,
remains very influential.
In the 1990s, however, strategic planning became much more diverse, with several
other schools emerging. Of these, the two schools which have really flourished in
recent years are Configuration and Learning.

Conclusion
In Strategy Safari Mintzberg makes a noble attempt to synthesise the thousands of
books, journals and articles which have been devoted to the subject of strategy over
the years.
The key role for strategy in organisations has traditionally been to address the big
issues, leaving people to get on with the day-to-day details, like serving customers,
but Mintzberg believes that strategies also have their weaknesses:

Strategies are to organisations what blinders are to horses: they keep them
going in a straight line, but hardly encourage peripheral vision. [6]
Mintzberg, therefore, concludes that the absence of strategies and strategic
management process can be just as beneficial to organisations as their presence.

[1] Mintzberg et al; Strategy Safari: A Guided Tour Through the Wilds of Strategic
Management, FT Prentice Hall, p 3.
[2] Mintzberg et al; Strategy Safari: A Guided Tour Through the Wilds of Strategic
Management, FT Prentice Hall, p 45.
[3] Mintzberg et al; Strategy Safari: A Guided Tour Through the Wilds of Strategic
Management, FT Prentice Hall, p 172.
[4] Mintzberg et al; Strategy Safari: The Complete Guide Through the Wilds of
Strategic Management, FT Prentice Hall, p 282.
[5] Mintzberg et al; Strategy Safari: The Complete Guide Through the Wilds of
Strategic Management, FT Prentice Hall, p 3.
[6] Mintzberg et al. Strategy Safari: A Guided Tour Through the Wilds of Strategic
Management, Prentice Hall, p 18.

Image Credit: Flickr Honor Photo Bar (accessed 08 October 2014).