The Effective Organization: Forces and Forms

  • Henry Mintzberg
  • January 15, 1991

WHAT MAKES an organization effective? For a long time we thought we had the answer. Frederick Taylor told us about the “one best way” at the turn of the century, and organizations long pursued this holy grail. First it was Taylor’s time and motion studies, later the participative management of the human relations people, in more recent years the wonders of strategic planning. It was as if every manager had to see the world through the same pair of glasses, although the fashion for lenses changed from time to time.

Then along came the so-called “contingency theorists,” who argued that “it all depends.” Effective organizations designed themselves to match their conditions. They used those time and motion studies for mass production, they used strategic planning under conditions of relative stability, and so forth. Trouble was, all this advice never came together: managers were made to feel like diners at a buffet table, urged to take a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

In a way, these two approaches to organizational effectiveness are reflected in the most popular management writings of today. I like to call them “Peterian” and “Porterian.” Tom Peters and Robert Waterman implore managers to “stick to their knitting” and to design their structures with “simultaneous loose-tight properties,” among other best ways, while Michael Porter insists that they use competitive analysis to choose strategic positions that best match the characteristics of their industries.1 To Porter, effectiveness resides in strategy, while to Peters it is the operations that count— executing any strategy with excellence.

While I agree that being effective depends on doing the right thing as well as doing things right, as Peter Drucker put it years ago, I believe we have to probe more deeply to find out what really makes an organization effective. We need to understand what gets it to a viable strategy in the first place, what makes it excellent once it’s there, and how some organizations are able to sustain viability and excellence in the face of change.

Some years ago I thought I had another answer. I argued that effective organizations “got it all together.” By choosing “configuration,” they brought their various characteristics of structure, strategy, and context into natural co-alignment.2 For example, some achieved integration as efficient machines, while others coalesced around product innovation.