“Mike—you should have been here yesterday.”

28 November 2014

In September in Madrid, I received the “C.K. Prahalad Distinguished Scholar-Practitioner Award” from the Strategic Management Society (SMS). The citation for the award mentions ‘”contributions to knowledge through the extraction of learning from practice.” So let’s take a look at this, not only in what professors do, but also in what strategists themselves do.

In my acceptance speech, I reminisced about an event at an SMS conference that I organized in 1982. These remarks have just been posted by the Society on YouTube--as a “funny story.” Have a look—it’s 3 minutes—before we continue below.

I have written a good deal about how we learn our way to strategies, whereas for Mike Porter, the process is about analysis: “I favour a set of analytic techniques to develop strategy” he wrote in The Economist in 1987. This view of the strategy process fits with Mike’s professorship at the Harvard Business School, whose case study method is predicated on MBA students’ use of analysis, whereas my view of the process fits with our masters programs (impm.org, mcgill.ca/imhl), wherein practicing managers learn by reflecting on their own experience. (Upcoming TWOGS pick up on these themes.)

In 1998, in our book Strategy Safari, Bruce Ahlstrand, Joseph Lampel, and I published a lengthy critique of Mike’s view. But I am aware of no comment by him of my view, other than a response to the following question, posed in a 2007 interview: “What are your views on Henry Mintzberg’s debunking and critique of the strategic planning process?”

Henry Mintzberg takes it even further (e.g., see Mintzberg, 1993, 1994a, 1994b; Mintzberg & Waters, 1985). He argues that you shouldn’t think about developing a strategy ex ante. Instead, what you should do is experiment and the strategy will somehow emerge from the learning process. While Mintzberg is an interesting and provocative guy, I completely reject the premise of his argument. But it is always helpful to be challenged, to stretch our thinking, and to make our assumptions clear.

Not much of an explanation here. In an interview it may be easy to dismiss strategy as learning, but how about in practice? Over the years, I have asked dozens of groups of managers the following questions. “Think back five years to the strategy that your company intended to pursue. How many of you would say that it was successfully realized, more or less?” Usually just a few hands go up, in one recent case none at all. “Now how many of you would say that the strategy your company actually pursued over these five years had relatively little to do with the strategy that it had intended?” Similar response: some hands go up, but usually not many. “OK, now how many of you would say that what happened fell somewhere in between?” Most of the hands go up!

What’s going on here? The answer is strategic learning, which has to accompany strategic thinking. Companies certainly try to think through—supported by analysis when possible—what they want to do, but they also have to adapt as they go along, whether because the thinking was faulty or because new ideas have come up, as unexpected problems have been solved or unforeseen opportunities encountered. In other words, strategists have to learn. So do professors.

In a 1987 article entitled “Crafting Strategy” I wrote that “In practice…all strategy-making walks on two feet, one deliberate, the other emergent. For just as purely deliberate strategy-making precludes learning, so purely emergent strategy-making precludes control. Pushed to the limit, neither approach makes much sense.”

That is why I have always made sure that my students are taught Michael Porter’s view of strategy.


Porter, M. E. (1987, May). The State of Strategic Thinking. The Economist, 21
Stonehouse, G., and Snowdon B. (2007) “Competitive Advantage Revisited: Michael Porter on Strategy and Competitiveness. Journal of Management Inquiry
Mintzberg, H. (1987, July-August). Crafting Strategy. Harvard Business Review
Mintzberg, H., Ahlstrand, B., and Lampel J. (1998) Strategy Safari. Free Press (critique on pages 112-121); see also the second edition (2009), Prentice-Hall, U.K. (pages 115-124)
Cited in the Interview
Mintzberg, H. (1993, Fall). The pitfalls of strategic planning. California Management Review, 72(1), 107-144
Mintzberg, H. (1994a, January-February) The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning. Harvard Business Review, 107-114
Mintzberg, H. (1994b) The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning. Free Press and Prentice-Hall International
Mintzberg, H. and J. Waters. (1985) Of Strategies, deliberate and emergent. Strategic Management Journal
See also:
Mintzberg, H. (1996, Summer) The “Honda Effect” Revisited, California Management Review
Mintzberg, H. (2007) Tracking Strategies…toward a general theory, Oxford University Press

© 2014 Henry Mintzberg