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Enough of silos. How about slabs?

Why do we tolerate unmanageable managerial jobs?

8 min read




This post is excerpted from “Bedtime Stories for Managers,” by Henry Mintzberg. Published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Copyright © 2019 Henry Mintzberg.


We all know about silos — those vertical cylinders that keep people horizontally apart from each other in organizations, makers from sellers, doctors from nurses. In fact, we have probably all heard more than enough about silos.

Well, then, how about slabs, those horizontal barriers to the free flow of information. We all know them too, if not by that name. In one Czech company, people talked about the seven executives on the top floor as some kind of inner sanctum, isolated from everyone else. And women have long complained about the “glass ceilings” that keep them from advancing up the hierarchy.

Once I did a workshop on these silos and slabs with the senior managers of a bank. They concluded that silos were the problem, not slabs. “You might want to check that out with some people on a slab or two below you,” I suggested.

We may need silos for the sake of specialization in our organizations, but we don’t need impenetrable walls. To use another metaphor, it’s not seamlessness we need in our organizations but good seams: tailored connections between the silos. The same can be said about the slabs, too, across the different levels of authority. Must the CEO, COO, CFO, and CLO all sit above, together?

A cardinal rule of management development programs is that different levels of managers must never be mixed. Keep the CEOs with the CEOs, middle managers with middle managers, and so on. Why? For the sake of status? Many C-suite executives already spend too much time with their peers. What they really need is to tap into the thinking of other kinds of managers. How about a little mingling, all you Cs? Get an earful from someone in another organization who can tell you what you’ll never hear from your own people.

Or how about coming down from those inner sanctums to put your desk next to people who have a different perspective? Kao, a Japanese manufacturer of personal care and other products, became famous for running its meetings in open spaces and allowing anyone going by to join: a foreman at the executive committee, an executive at a factory meeting. Semco, a Brazilian company, reported keeping two seats at its board of directors meetings open for workers. It’s easy to bust the slabs when you realize that they are mere figments of our lack of imagination.

Manageable and Unmanageable Managing

Imagine managing cheese products in India for a global food company or running a general hospital in Montreal under the Quebec Medicare system. Sounds pretty straightforward, right?

Now imagine that you have sold so much cheese in India that the company asks you to manage cheese for all of Asia. Or in Montreal you are asked to manage a community clinic apart from the hospital — to go back and forth between them or to stay in an office somewhere and shoot off emails.

In one region in Quebec, the government actually went nine times further. It designated one managerial position for nine different institutions: a hospital, community clinic, rehabilitation center, palliative care unit, and various social services. Gone were the nine managers who headed up those institutions, replaced by one manager to manage the whole works. Think of the money this saved. Think of the chaos that ensued.

Unmanageable Managing

Some managerial jobs are rather natural and others are not. Cheese in India sounds okay, but cheese in Asia? One health care institution sure, but two together (actually apart), let alone nine?

Why do we tolerate unmanageable managerial jobs? Years ago conglomerates were all the rage among corporations. If you knew management, you could manage all kinds of businesses together — say, a filmmaking studio with a nuclear reactor and a chain of toenail salons. That era passed, thankfully, only to be replaced by internal conglomeration. Now it’s fashionable for managers to manage perplexing mixtures of activities within the same business.

This happens because drawing charts is a lot easier than managing organizations. Think of all the money this saves, too. All you need is the Great Organizer sitting in some central office somewhere (a) clustering various businesses together on a chart, (b) drawing a box around each cluster, (c) designating a label for each box (cheese in Asia or Health and Social Services Centers in Quebec), (d) joining them all with lines to show who is the real boss, and (e) emailing the tidy result to all concerned — and condemned. What could be simpler than that? Or more complicated?

The Box 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. Geographically at least, most of the continents look coherent, surrounded by seas: Africa, North as well as South America and especially Antarctica, even Australia. But how did Asia get in there? There is no sea to the west, nor does Europe have one to the east. The Asians can thank the Europeans, who designated the continents in the first place. The Europeans could hardly leave themselves out, let alone be lumped into Eurasia (Japan? India?), even if that is what the maps indicated. So they drew a line between Europe and Asia with no sea in sight. Not quite in the sand, mind you; they drew the line along a mountain range. (By this logic, Chile should also be a continent.) These mapmakers simply sliced Russia in two to fabricate where Europe ends and Asia begins.

People who used to make such maps now draw organization charts.

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. How are you to manage that? Especially when the person who took your old job in India, where most of your Asian sales already are, is managing cheese there perfectly well, thank you.

If you are smart, you won’t even try. But that won’t get you a promotion, say, to become the Big Cheese for the company’s food in all of Asia — kimchi and harissa and poutine as well as cheese. So manage cheese in Asia you must.

And that is when the problems begin. Please understand: There is nothing more dangerous than a manager with nothing to do. Managers are energetic people — that’s one reason why they got to be managers in the first place. Put one into an unmanageable position, and he or she will find something to do. Like organizing retreats where the cheese managers from India, Japan, Outer Mongolia, and Papua New Guinea can join in the search for “synergies” — ways to help each other sell product that people don’t want.

Otherwise, it’s boring to sit in the regional head office in Singapore (the center of the Asian non-continent), so into an airplane goes our energetic manager. Not to micromanage, mind you — that’s out of fashion. Just to drop by, to have a look. “I’m your boss, in charge of cheese for Asia,” you say, hovering over the manager in charge of cheese for Japan. “Thought I would drop in, you know, to chat. But while I’m here, let me ask you a few innocent questions: How come cheese is not moving in Japan? Isn’t the job of a business to create a customer? They eat Korean kimchi here, don’t they, just like they eat Indian chutneys in Piccadilly Circus? So why not Gorgonzola in the Ginza?”

Beyond the Boxes

A hospital all in one place is a natural entity. Selling cheese in India also seems natural enough. But beyond that, expecting someone somewhere to manage because someone elsewhere drew a box on a chart isn’t necessarily natural at all. Surely we can organize ourselves outside the boxes.


Mintzberg is Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal, the winner of awards from the most prestigious academic and practitioner institutions in management (Harvard Business Review, Academy of Management, Association of Management Consulting Firms, and others), and the recipient of 20 honorary degrees from around the world. He is the author or co-author of 20 books, including “Managers Not MBAs,” “Strategy Safari,” and “The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning,” and is a founding partner of Coaching Ourselves. For more information, visit Mintzberg’s website and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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