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What is Henry Mintzberg's view of strategic planning?

by D. Power

Henry Mintzberg is a well-known academic who writes about strategy and organizational management. In 1993, he authored a book on The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning and in 1994 a Harvard Business Review article titled "The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning". In both, Mintzberg argued the label strategic planning should be dropped because strategic planning has impeded strategic thinking.

Basically Minztberg is concerned that a bureacratic, analytical planning process deceives managers into thinking that they are planning strategically and hence improving future organizational performance.

I agree with some of Minztberg's ideas, but he's generally confrontational and simplistic in his analysis. Planning must involve both analysis and thinking. Changing labels won't improve poor processes or teach planning skills to those who lack them. Mintzberg raises a valid issue, but he fails to offer any real solutions. Planning skills can be taught and learned and having such skills can make a difference for individuals and their organizations. Formal planning processes can reinforce and enhance planning skills in organizations, but poorly designed processes can be detrimental to effective planning.

Minztberg writes "What is the relationship between planning and strategy? Is strategy making simply a process of planning, as the proponents of planning have so vigorously insisted? Or, at the other extreme, is strategic planning simply another oxymoron, like progressive conservative or jumbo shrimp (or civil engineer?). In other words, should strategy always be planned, never be planned, or sometimes be planned? Or should it relate to planning in some other way? "

After criticizing other definitions of planning, Mintzberg (1993) concluded "Planning is a formalized procedure to produce an articulated result, in the form of an integrated system of decisions. What to us captures the notion of planning above all -- most clearly distinguishes its literature and differentiates its practice from other processes -- is its emphasis on formalization, the systemization of the phenomenon to which planning is meant to apply." This narrow definition is set up as the target for additional criticism of the entire idea of planning.

Mintzberg argues "An emphasis on formal rationality permeates the literature of planning. ... Along with rationality and decomposition, articulation is the third key component of formalization. The product of planning - the plans themselves -- after being carefully decomposed into strategies and substrategies, programs, budgets, and objectives, must be clearly and explicitly labeled -- by words and, preferably, numbers on sheets of paper."

"An organization can plan (consider its future) without engaging in planning (formal procedure) even if it produces plans (explicit intentions); alternately, an organization can engage in planning (formalized procedure) yet not plan (consider its future); and planners may do all or some of these things, sometimes none of them, yet, as we shall see in conclusion, still serve the organization."

Minztberg claims he is making an effort at unfreezing our views on planning. He's not surprised if the reader is confused. Sadly perhaps Mintzberg is also confused and hence more interested in attracting attention to his position than to anything else. He encourages an "anti-planning" attitude when what his attacks suggest is that we need a more sophisticated approach to planning.

Mintzberg's book is very negative in tone and I'm sure he consciously planned to make it so. Sorry Henry!! Planning is important even though the concept is poorly understood.

References

Mintzberg, H., The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning: Reconceiving Roles for Planning, Plans, Planners, Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Mintzberg, H., The fall and rise of strategic planning. Harvard Business Review, (1994, January-February), 107-114.




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