SMS Emerging Scholar LogoA Conversation with Henry Mintzberg

This interview was conducted by SMS Past President Jay Barney, Chair of the Awards and Honors Selection Committee.

Henry Mintzberg is the winner of the 2014 CK Prahalad Distinguished Scholar-Practitioner Award.

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Barney: You have won the SMS's 2014 CK Prahalad Distinguished Scholar-Practitioner Award. Which of your work do you think best exemplifies this combination of scholarship and practice?

In the field of strategic management, I think the best example of this ideal is my work on the emergent strategy idea, especially the comparison between deliberate and emergent strategy. The debate that is embedded in this topic--strategy is learning vs. strategy is thinking or planning—resonates very well with both scholars and practitioners. I've always taken pride in publishing pairs of papers on similar topics, one in, for example, the SMJ more for scholars, and the other in, say, HBR, for practitioners. For example, I published an article in the Administrative Science Quarterly called "Strategy Formation in an Adhocracy" (1985) and a related article in SMJ titled "Of Strategies, Deliberate and Emergent" (1985) both aimed primarily at scholars. But then I published a paper in the Harvard Business Review titled "Crafting Strategy" (1987) that built on the ideas in the prior published work, but was designed for practitioners. I was able to address both audiences with the same kind of material.

Barney: Do you try to address academics and practitioners in all your papers, or are some more focused on one or the other of these groups?

Well some of my published work is a little less accessible to practitioners. Some of the studies we did get much more theoretical like the one on the national film board. It's not inaccessible to practitioners, but it does get into a lot more depth in terms of developing theory and so on.

Barney: Based on your experience, what's the difference between these two kinds of work and how can they be linked? There are frequent calls for a more integrated approach to research and practice, but I'm not sure that that many people know how to do it. Any insights?

I like the old saying that there is nothing so practical as a good theory. And if you can develop a good theory, you should be able to convey it to practitioners and academics alike, although you may want to do so in different publications. In teaching, of course, you don't have the students read the ASQ or SMJ articles. You have them read the HBR, but the underlying concepts are very similar. Ultimately, I think the ability to speak to both scholars and practitioners simply reflects an ability to come up with questions and concepts that resonate with all types of people.

Barney: How do you manage this tension between academic rigor and application in the classroom?

Let me give you an example. I've been doing this in the classroom for years. I start by asking students "What is your definition of strategy?" I hear all the classic definitions—it's a plan, targets, and so forth. Then I ask, "So, what was the strategy of your company, say, for the last five years?" They then tell me what they thought their strategy was, so I ask, "Okay, go back five years and tell me what strategy your company intended to pursue for the last five years. Was the strategy you actually pursued the same as the strategy you intended to pursue?" I give them three choices; 1) yes, more or less 2)no, more or less 3)or somewhere in between. I've had groups that had almost nobody saying yes. There are often a few more no's than yeses, but not a lot. Most everyone else falls in between. I say, "What's going on here?" Clearly, strategy isn't just a plan. Their experience tells me that every strategy is a learning process that exists alongside a more cerebral process of formulating a strategy. That's how I talk about emergent strategies with practitioners. In an academic article, I would use a chart or something to make the point, but the point is the same.

Barney: Do you think there is enough of this work being done that combines the academic and practice points of view?

No. And not only in strategy. I think it's across business schools in general. I think our work should pass what I call the "Bill and Barbara test." Once I was asked to write a commentary on the best papers that were presented at a leadership conference. I knew that Bill and Barbara were a couple of very bright and successful practitioners in senior positions that were interested in understanding leadership. So I showed them these "best papers" on leadership. They were actually dumbfounded. These are two very bright people. Both said, "How could I find any of that useful." I actually got them to read the papers, to make detailed comments, but what they said—I couldn't publish it. My comments on these papers were tame compared to Bill and Barbara. That's how I came up with the "Bill and Barbara test." No paper should be published in any journal or accepted in any conference without passing the Bill and Barbara test, which is the test of intelligent practitioners.

Barney: Why do you suppose we've lost this more integrated approach?

I think this whole obsession with tenure and counting "A" Journals is absolutely, utterly dysfunctional. We tell our young people that they aren't supposed to write books because they don't count like articles. Ultimately, like most professions, we're a closed shop. I think we take advantage of the fact that we don't have to answer to anyone on the outside. We answer only to ourselves, and develop evaluation criteria that only we can appreciate and apply. Is it a surprise, then, that most scholarly work is meant only to be read by other scholars?

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