Henry Mintzberg Misses the Mark on Performance Measurement Data

We’ve all been in situations where we get agitated because someone we admire, and with whom we generally agree, goes too far in pushing his or her agenda. This situation occurred to me as I read Henry Mintzberg’s new book, Managing (Berrett-Koehler, 2009), which updates his thinking in his first book, The Nature of Management (Harper & Row; reprinted by Prentice-Hall, 1973) based on his doctoral dissertation more than 35 years ago.

Mintzberg all but dismisses the value of using performance outcome data in favor of an “information diet” of gossip, hearsay, and speculation.” Such “informal information” he writes, “can be much richer, even if less reliable.”

I could not believe what I was reading. It goes counter to what I’ve been advocating to court managers for years, i.e., effective performance measurement and management can transform your court; it shows you where you are and gets you to where you want to be. Performance monitoring, analysis and management are no longer an option for successful court managers. (See, for example, "Principles of Effective Performance Measurement," Made2Measure, November 12, 2007; and "Court Intelligence – A Matter of Survival," Made2Measure, December 11, 2007)

While Mintzberg’s observations and insights about what managers actually do – the actual practice of management – are invaluable contributions to the literature of management and leadership, he badly misses the mark when he disparages management based on what he calls “formalized management information systems.”

I know that many of today’s court managers rely heavily on performance data and are wary of spouting anecdotal evidence when asked “How is the court doing?” They know that their courts’ stakeholders increasingly want them to show them the data, and nothing else will do.

The Elevation of Anecdote, Gossip and Speculation

Today’s managers ignore evidence-based performance data and rely instead on a steady information diet of gossip, hearsay and speculation at their peril.

Consider this: If your court or court system has developed the right measures (e.g., court user satisfaction, case clearance, on-time case processing, and employee engagement), all on a balance scorecard of performance that is available to you on demand on a self-service basis in real-time, why would you risk basing your decisions on gossip, hearsay and speculation? Excuse the metaphors, but why would you not rely on your car dashboard right in front of your eyes to give you a reading of your car’s speed and, instead, ask the passengers to speculate how fast you’re going? (Such speculation won’t carry the day with a trooper that has stopped you for speeding?) Or why would you depend on speculation about your health when you could be reading your blood pressure and cholesterol levels?

A Blind Spot

But let me give Mintzberg his proper due. He’s the Cleghorn professor of management studies at McGill University and one the most original management thinkers writing today. As I said, I generally admire his writings.

Many years ago, my colleague and friend Bob Wessels -- the manager of the Harris County (Texas) Criminal Courts, and a innovate manager in his own right who has invested heavily in performance measurement and business intelligence -- introduced me to Mintzberg’s writings and, like Wessels and others in court administration, I have read his writings steadily since.

My copy of his 1994 book, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning: Reconceiving Roles for Planning, Plans and Planners (Free Press) is dog-eared and filled with my marginal notes. I found his recent article in the July – August 2009 issue of Harvard Business Review, “Rebuilding Companies as Communities,” truly inspiring.

Mintzberg has championed study of the status quo – what managers actually do rather than what management theorist conjure up about the job of management and leadership. He is among only a few scholars who have bothered to study mangers and to make some sense of the work they actually do in organizations. For this alone, he is worth reading.

Mintzberg, of course, is also right that much of management is not necessarily information-driven.”To manage through information means to sit two steps removed from the ultimate purpose of managing: information is processed by the manager to encourage other people to take the necessary action. In other words,” he writes, “on this plane the focus is neither on people nor on actions directly, but on information as an indirect way to make things happen.”

So far so good, but why go to the extreme of dismissing performance data almost altogether and instead elevate gossip, hearsay and speculation as staples for managers? One step too far, I say, you’ve lost me in what appears to be a big blind spot.

I am particularly disturbed and disappointed about the message Mintzberg sends to court professionals about modern performance measurement and management systems, i.e., the monitoring, analysis, and management of results (outcomes or accomplishments) on a regular basis for the purposes of transparency, accountability and continuous improvement. The significant position that these modern information guidance systems occupy in today’s management practice seems to have been missed or ignored by Mintzberg.

Maybe because Mintzberg has focused much of his work on what managers actually did years ago, he shows little patience with what managers may have to do, what they should do, and what they want to do today and in the future. All of the latter, he suggests, is part of the popular but unreal image of the manager as symphony conductor carefully planning, organizing, coordinating, and controlling.

But if the managers Mintzberg studied really favored a steady diet of anecdotes, gossip and speculation, I would go so far as to suggest that they are bad managers, or at least not as good as they could (and should) be. (See "This Just In: Performance Measurement Works," Made2Measure, September 24, 2008)

Mintzberg blind spot may also extend to what today’s managers actually do in the area of performance measurement and management. For example, many managers, including court managers, are increasingly turning to performance dashboards, an aspect of business intelligence, to monitor, analyze and manage their organizations’ performance. (See "The Real Promise of Performance Dashboards," Made2Measure, May 9, 2007)

The information on a performance dashboard is consolidated and arranged in a combination of text and graphics on a computer screen that busy executives, managers and staff can easily monitor and analyze. The dashboard display is dynamic, allowing users to navigate rapidly across and through layers of strategic, tactical and operational performance data as they choose, whenever they choose, as data is updated on a real-time basis (the performance data available on the modern dashboards, like the one completed in September 2009 by my colleagues and me for the Kosovo Judiciary updated every day).

Performance dashboards help court managers to identify problems or opportunities quickly as they happen, to identify trends and patterns, to discover ways to improve programs and services, and to help guide them toward effective decisions. It provides a “line of sight” between core strategic indicators and subordinate tactical and operational indicators that convey to them what the drivers of successful court performance might be, and gives them concrete knowledge about how they contribute to that success.

Sure beats gossip, hearsay and speculation!

A Straw Man

Mintzberg writes that managers favor oral communications because the information they get from formal management information systems is not timely, is outdated once it gets to them, and typically is not easy to understand. What busy mangers have time for that, he asks.

This is a straw man argument and it surely goes too far. No one is suggesting that busy managers should wait around for someone to deliver untrustworthy performance data long after is it of any use. Has Mintzberg bothered to sample the burgeoning literature on performance dashboards and business intelligence technology? Did he happen to catch the special July 2009 issue of Wired focused on the “personal metrics movement” with the cover title “Living by Numbers – Track your data? Analyze your results. Optimize your life”?

The trouble is that Mintzberg has what seems to be an outdated perspective on modern management information systems and the use that managers make of them today. He rails against email – he refers to it as “this new medium” --in ways that I think readers will find archaic, if not uninformed.

I confess that as I read Managing I could not help think of Mintzberg as a technophobe who takes stances against modern information technology in order to preserve his ideologies.

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