Natural and Unnatural Managerial Jobs (thinking outside the boxes)

29 January 2016

Imagine managing cheese in India for an international food company, or running a general hospital in Montreal. Sounds petty straightforward, right?

Now imagine that you did so well in India that the company wants you to manage cheese for all of Asia. How about that? Or in Montreal, the government wants you to manage another hospital too—to run back and forth between them, or else stay in an office somewhere and shoot off emails like John Wayne with a couple of six-shooters.

Actually the true story in Montreal, as told in the TWOG of January 6, is that, in reorganizing heath care services in Quebec, the government clustered them so that, in one region for example, it designated a position in charge of a hospital plus eight other institutions—a community clinic, rehabilitation center, palliative care unit, various social services, and so on. It actually eliminated all nine positions heading up these institutions, and expected this one manager to manage the whole works.

Unmanageable Managing  Some managerial positions are rather natural and others are not. Cheese in India is probably OK, but cheese in Asia? One hospital sure, but two together (which, when you get past the chart, are actually two apart), let alone nine different institutions?

Why are we tolerating so many unmanageable managerial jobs? Years ago, conglomerates were all the rage among corporations. If you knew management, you could manage everything—say a filmmaking studio plus a nuclear reactor plus a chain of toenail salons. That era passed, thankfully—now it’s fashionable again to manage coherent businesses—but we have passed into an era of internal conglomeration: many managers have to manage perplexing mixtures of activities

Perhaps this is happening because drawing charts is a lot easier than selling cheese. Sit in some central office attached to no other activities in the organization; cluster its various activities together, each with a lucid label (Central Montreal, Cheese in Asia, whatever); put a box around each of these clusters on a piece of paper; join them all with lines to show who is the real boss; and email the tidy result to all concerned, leaving them to deal with any catastrophic consequences.[1] Cheese in Asia: what could be simpler than that? Or more complicated?

That category called Asia  They eat a lot of cheese in India, but hardly any in Japan. What in the world is “Asia” anyway? Any continent that contains both India and Japan can’t be serious: I know of no two countries that are more different.

Have a look at a map of the world: Africa looks like a continent geographically, even socially to some extent. So does South America, and especially Antarctica. But Asia? It’s just a figment of some mapmaker’s lack of imagination.

All the continents end by the sea, except Europe. But Europeans, who I imagine designated the continents in the first place, could hardly be left out; let alone lumped into Eurasia, even if that is what the maps clearly indicated. But where to draw the line between Europe and Asia, with no sea in sight and the countries blending into each other culturally, from Ireland all the way through to Japan (Ireland to England, Iran to Afghanistan, Korea to Japan)?

So the mapmakers simply sliced Russia in two and designated a mountain range within it as the place where Europe ends and Asia begins. A line was drawn where no line existed so that Europe could be a continent too. (By this logic, Chile should also be a continent.) People who used to make such maps now design organization charts.[2]

The most dangerous manager  Let’s get back to business. You are managing cheese in Asia, except that people in some parts of  Asia eat lots of cheese and others don’t. So how are you to manage that, especially when the person who took your old job is already managing cheese in India perfectly well, thank you?

If you are smart, you wouldn’t even try. But that won’t get you a bigger job—say to become the Big Cheese for all of food in Asia, let alone Chief Executive Officer for the whole world, to sell cheese and kimchi and harissa and poutine everywhere. So manage cheese in Asia you must.  

And that’s when the problems begin. Doing nothing in a job where there is nothing to do may make perfectly good sense. But don’t expect this from any self-respecting manager. These are energetic people—that‘s one reason they got to be managers in the first place. And the more senior they are, the more energetic they tend to be.

Remember this: Nothing is more dangerous than a manager with nothing to do. Put one into an unnatural job and he or she will find something to do. Like arranging summits where the cheese managers from India and Japan, China and Vietnam, can search for “synergies”—ways to help each other sell product to people who don’t want it.

Otherwise, it’s boring sitting there in the regional office in Singapore (the center of the Asian non-continent). So into an airplane goes our energetic manager—better to Japan than India—not to micro-manage, mind you. (Control went out of fashion in the last quarter.) Just to have a look. I’m just the boss, in charge of cheese for Asia, says this manager to the manager in charge of cheese for Japan. But do let me ask you a few questions: How come cheese is not moving in Japan? Isn’t the job of business to create a customer? They eat Korean kimchi here, don’t they, just like they eat Indian chutneys in England and Indonesian Rijsttafel in Holland. Why not Swiss cheese in the Ginza?

Beyond the Boxes  A hospital all in one place is a natural entity. Selling cheese in India also seems natural enough—there may be different kinds, but at least it all uses milk.[3] But expecting people to work together because someone somewhere drew some boxes on a piece of paper doesn’t have to be natural at all. Categories do matter, especially when they need to be ignored. Why must the working lives of people be thrown into turmoil when they could instead be selling cheese or treating the ill? Surely we can organize ourselves outside the boxes.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. Sections of this are drawn from my book Simply ManagingFollow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing at

[1] One victim of the Quebec effort wrote to me recently about the consequences in another hospital: “I have been through many reorganization efforts and transformations since I have been a ‘medical administrator’, but none came even close to being so destructive and dehumanizing…. What is amazing is that we are all paralyzed. A few of us have spoken up, but our words have no impact. The silence and passivity are frightening.” Sound familiar?

[2] The problem persists, to the detriment of the European Union. It had no-where to draw the line between Western Europe and the rest—no mountain range, not even a place where cheese consumption ended (they eat Feta in Greece). So the EU kept pushing eastward, and now it has become the European Disunion.

[3] There is a famous exchange between Churchill and de Gaulle during the war when Churchill told him that any country with 300 different cheeses can’t possibly be governable, and de Gaulle replied that France had 350.