Reflecting on the Strategy Process

  • Henry Mintzberg and Joseph Lampel
  • April 15, 1999

We are the blind people and strategy formation is our elephant. Each of us, in trying to cope with the mysteries of the beast, grabs hold of some part or other, and, in the words of John Godfrey Saxe’s poem of the last century:

Rail on in utter ignorance of what each other mean, And prate about an Elephant Not one of [us] has seen!

Consultants have been like big game hunters embarking on their safaris for tusks and trophies, while academics have preferred photo safaris — keeping a safe distance from the animals they pretend to observe.

Managers take one narrow perspective or another — the glories of planning or the wonders of learning, the demands of external competitive analyses or the imperatives of an internal “resource-based” view. Much of this writing and advising has been decidedly dysfunctional, simply because managers have no choice but to cope with the entire beast.

In the first part of this article, we review briefly the evolution of the field in terms of ten “schools.”1 We ask whether these perspectives represent fundamentally different processes of strategy making or different parts of the same process. In both cases, our answer is yes. We seek to show how some recent work tends to cut across these historical perspectives — in a sense, how cross-fertilization has occurred. To academics, this represents confusion and disorder, whereas to others — including ourselves — it expresses a certain welcome eclecticism, a broadening of perspectives. We discuss this in terms of another metaphor that is also popular in strategic management: the tree with its roots and branches.

Ten Schools of Strategy Formation

In his article “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information,” psychologist George Miller suggested in 1956 that the popularity of typologies using the number seven implies the number of “chunks” of information people can comfortably retain in their short-term memory.2 We hope that people interested in strategy can function at the upper limit of this range and, indeed, a bit beyond, because our historical survey of strategy literature suggests that it has been characterized by ten major schools since its inception in the 1960s — three prescriptive (or “ought”) and seven descriptive (or “is”).

We assume that the reader is familiar with the literature and practice of strategic management, if not necessarily with this particular characterization of them.