What are the Ten Schools of Thought?
The Ten Schools of Thought model from Mintzberg is a framework that can be used to categorize the field of Strategic Management.
- The Design School. This school sees strategy formation as a process of conception.
Basis: Architecture as a metaphor.
In short: Fit! “Establish fit!”
Contributions: Order. Reduced ambiguity. Simplicity. Useful in relatively stable environments. It supports strong, visionary leadership.
Limitations: Simplification may distort reality. Strategy has many variables and is inherently complex. By-passing learning; Inflexible. May be ineffective in fast changing environment. There is the risk of resistance (not-invented-here behaviour).
Typical / compare: SWOT Analysis | Ashridge Mission Model
- The Planning School. This school sees strategy formation as a formal process.
Approach: A rigorous set of steps are taken, from the analysis of the situation to the execution of the strategy.
Basis: Urban planning, system theory, cybernetics.
In short: Formalize! “Strategy should be like a machine.”
Contributions: Gives clear direction. Enables firm resource allocation. Analysts can pre-screen the facts and they can judge the crafted strategies.
Limitations: Strategy can become too static. The risk exists of Groupthink. Predicting is difficult. Top managers must create the strategy from an ivory tower. Strategy is partly an art.
Typical / compare: Theory of Mechanistic and Organic Systems | Parenting Styles | Levers of Control | Scenario Planning
Approach: It places the business within the context its industry, and looks at how the organization can improve its strategic positioning within that industry.
Basis: Industrial organization (economics) and military strategy.
In short: Analyze! “Nothing but the facts.”
Contributions: This school made Strategic Management into a science, enabling future progress. It provides a systematic way of looking at strategy. Focus on hard (economic) facts. It has been found to be particularly useful in early stages of strategy development, when data is analyzed.
Limitations: See Planning School. Neglects power, politics, culture, social elements. It is biased towards large firms, and number-orientation.
Typical / compare: Competitive Advantage | Five Forces | Value Chain | BCG Matrix | Game Theory | The Art of War (Sun Tzu)
- The Entrepreneurial School. This school sees strategy formation as a visionary process.
Approach: The visionary process takes place within the mind of the charismatic founder or leader of an organization. The school stresses the most innate of mental states and processes – intuition, judgment, wisdom, experience, and insight.
Contributions: A sound vision and a visionary CEO can help organizations to sail cohesively through muddy waters. It seems to be especially appropriate in early or very difficult years for the organization. It is deliberate in the broad lines yet flexible and emergent in the details.
Limitations: Sailing a predefined course can blind someone for potential unexpected dangers or developments. How can you find the right leader, with all of the many needed qualities? Entrepreneurial, visionary leaders have a tendency to go too far. Being CEO is an extremely demanding job in this perspective.
Typical / compare: Entrepreneurial Government | Seven Surprises for New CEO’s | Leadership Styles
- The Cognitive School. This school sees strategy formation as a mental process.
Approach: It analyzes how people perceive patterns and process information. It concentrates on what is happening in the mind of the strategist, and how it processes the information.
In short: Frame! “I’ll see it when I believe it.”
Contributions: Sees strategy as a cognitive process in the mind of the strategist. Strategies emerge as concepts, maps, schemas and frames of reality. It stresses the creative side of the strategy process.
Limitations: Not very practical beyond the conceptual stage. Not associated with any practical steps needed to conceive great ideas or strategies. Currently not very useful to guide collective strategy processes.
Typical / compare: Whole Brain Model | Johari Window | Groupthink | Cognitive Bias | Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
- The Learning School. This school sees strategy formation as an emergent process.
Approach: The management pays close attention over time to what does work, and what doesn’t work. They incorporate these ‘lessons learned’ into their overall plan of action. The world is too complex to allow strategies to be developed all at once. Within a world of ‘bounded rationality’ strategies must emerge in small incremental steps, as an organization adapts, or “learns”.
Basis: Education, learning theory.
In short: Learn! “If at first you don’t succeed, try again.”
Contributions: Offers a solution to deal with complexity and unpredictability in strategy formation. More people can learn than just the leader. No need for omnipotent leader. It can be combined with the emergent view. It requires the organization to be comfortable with the nature complex adaptive system where continuous change may lead to a formidable professional organizations.
Limitations: This school could lead to having no strategy or just doing some tactical maneuvering (muddling through). Or to strategic drift. Not useful at all during crises. It is not very useful in stable conditions. Taking many sensible small steps does not necessarily add up to a sound total strategy. You should not cross a chasm by taking small steps. There are costs associated with learning.
Typical / compare: Organizational Learning | Forget Borrow Learn framework | Knowledge Management | SECI model
- The Power School. This school sees strategy formation as a process of negotiation.
Basis: Political science.
In short: Grab! “Look out for number one.”
Contributions: Can help to let the strongest people survive in the corporate jungle. It can help to ensure that all sides of an issue are fully and openly debated. It can help to break through obstacles to necessary change. The participative nature of the system can help to decrease resistance after a decision is made.
Limitations: Politics can be divisive, uses a lot of energy, causes wastage and distortion and is costly. It can lead to aberration where an organization has no strategy to adhere to or just doing some tactical maneuvering (muddling through) to cope with its wider environment.
Typical / compare: Bases of Social Power | Power Distance | Stakeholder Value Perspective | Core Group Theory | Force Field Analysis | Stakeholder Analysis | Stakeholder Mapping
- The Cultural School. This school sees strategy formation as a collective process.
Approach: Tries to involve the various groups and departments within the company. Strategy formation is viewed as a fundamentally collective and cooperative process. The strategy that is developed is a reflection of the corporate culture of the organization.
In short: Coalesce! “An apple never falls far from the tree.”
Contributions: Emphasizes the crucial role that social processes, beliefs and values are playing in decision-making and in strategy formation. Explains resistance to strategic change and helps to deal with dominant values in organizations or in regions, and helps to deal with mergers and acquisitions.
Limitations: Vague, can feed resistance to change and can be misused to justify the status-quo. Gives few clues on how things should become.
Typical / compare: Appreciative Inquiry | Cultural Dimensions | Cultural Intelligence | Ashridge Mission Model
- The Environmental School. This school sees strategy formation as a reactive process.
Approach: The strategy is a response to the challenges imposed by the external environment. Where other schools see the environment as a factor, the environmental school sees it as an actor –
indeed the actor.
In short: Cope! “It all depends.”
Contributions: Gives a central role to the environment in strategy formation.
Limitations: The dimensions of the environment are often vague and aggregated. This renders it less useful for strategy formation. It denies real strategic choice for organizations. This is unrealistic.
Typical / compare: Contingency Theory | Situational Leadership
- The Configuration School. This school sees strategy formation as a process of transformation.
Approach: Strategy formation is a process of transforming the organization from one type of decision-making structure into another.
In short: Integrate, transform! “To everything there is a season.”
Contributions: Strategy and organizational shape (organizational development) are closely integrated and should be reconciled. An organization can be described in terms of some stable configuration of its characteristics, which it adopts for a period of time in a particular type of context. This causes it to behave in particular ways which in turn give rise to a particular set of strategies. The periods of stability are interrupted occasionally by some process of transformation. Key to strategic management is most of the time: to sustain stability, or at least adaptable strategic change.
Limitations: In reality there are many shades of grey, not just a limited number of valid configurations. Also, pattern is in the eye of the beholder. If you describe the reality by using configurations, you are distorting the reality in order to explain it.
Typical / compare: Organizational Configurations | Chaos Theory | Catastrophe Theory | Disruptive Innovation
Reference: Mintzberg, H, Ahlstrand, B, and Lampel, J (1998) Strategy Safari – A Guided Tour Through The Wilds Of Strategic Management, The Free Press