Managing Scrambled Eggs

17 October 2018

This is the opening story, that sets the tone, for my new book Bedtime Stories for Managers, a collection of my TWOGs, coming out in February. It’s time to unscramble the messes of managing.

One morning, years ago, I flew Eastern Airlines from Montreal to New York. It was the largest airline in the world at the time, but soon to go belly up.

They served food in those days, well sort of—something they called “scrambled eggs.” I said to the flight attendant: “I’ve eaten some awfully bad things in airplanes, but this has to be the worst.” “I know”, she replied, “we keep telling them; they won’t listen.”

Now how could this be? If they were running a cemetery, I could understand the difficulties of communicating with their customers. But an airline? Whenever I encounter awful service, or a badly designed product, I wonder if the management is running the business, or reading the financial statements?

The financial analysts were certainly reading those statements, and probably explaining the airline’s problems in terms of load factors and the like. Don’t believe a number of it. Eastern Airlines went belly up because of those scrambled eggs.

Some years later, after telling this story to a group of managers, one of them, from IBM, came up to tell me another story. The CEO of Eastern Airlines came rushing in at the last minute for a flight, he said. First class was full, so they bumped a paying customer to put him where I guess he had become accustomed. Apparently feeling guilty, he reportedly made his way to Economy Class (no mention was made of him having to ask where it was). There he apologized to the customer, introducing himself as the CEO of the airline. The customer replied: “Well, I’m the CEO of IBM.”

Now, don’t get this wrong. The problem was not about who was bumped. Quite the contrary, status was the problem: higher class counted for more than common sense. Managing is not about sitting where you have become accustomed. It’s about eating the scrambled eggs.


© Henry Mintzberg 2018 (was on this site 7 April 2016 with small differences). Bedtime Stories for Managers can be preordered on Amazon.