Ten Schools of Thought

The Ten Schools of Thought model from Henry Mintzberg is a business framework that can be used to categorize the field of Strategic Management.

  1. The Design School. This school sees strategy formation as a process of conception.
    • Approach: Clear and unique strategies are formulated in a deliberate process. In this process, the internal situation of the organization is matched to the external situation of the environment.
    • 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. Bypassing learning. Inflexible. Weak in fast changing environment. There is the risk of resistance (not-invented-here behavior).
  2. 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. Control.
    • 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.
  3. The Positioning School. This school sees strategy formation as an analytical process.
    • 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, madam.”
    • Contributions: This school made Strategic Management into a science, enabling future progress. Provides content in a systematic way to the existing way of looking at strategy. Focus on hard (economic) facts. Particularly useful in early stages of strategy development, when data is analyzed.
    • Limitations: See Planning School. Neglects power, politics, culture, social elements. Is biased towards large firms. Number-oriented.
  4. 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.
    • Basis: Economics.
    • In short: Envision! “The CEO is the architect of the Strategy.”
    • Contributions: A sound vision and a visionary CEO can help organizations to sail cohesively through muddy waters. Especially in early or very difficult years for the organization. Deliberate in the broad lines. 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.
  5. 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.
    • Basis: Psychology.
    • 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. Stresses the creative side of the strategy process. Strong at the level of an individual strategist. very useful to explain why our minds are imperfect
    • Limitations: Not very practical beyond the conceptual stage. Not very practical to conceive great ideas or strategies. Currently not very useful to guide collective strategy processes.
  6. 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. As clear plans or visions. Hence strategies must emerge in small 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. Can be combined with the emergent view. Strong in complex conditions with continuous change. Strong in 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. 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.
  7. The Power School. This school sees strategy formation as a process of negotiation.
    • Approach: The strategy is developed as a process of negotiation between power holders within the company, and/or between the company and its external stakeholders.
    • Basis: Political science.
    • In short: Grab! “Look out for number one.”
    • Contributions: Can help to let the strongest people survive in the corporate jungle. Can help to ensure that all sides of an issue is fully debated. Can help to break through obstacles to necessary change. Democratic. Can help to decrease resistance after a decision is made. Realistic. Particularly useful to understand Strategic Alliances, Joint-Ventures and to do Stakeholder Analysis.
    • Limitations: Politics can be divisive, uses a lot of energy, causes wastage and distortion and is costly. Can lead to aberrations. Can lead to having no strategy or just doing some tactical maneuvering (muddling through). Overstates the role of power in strategy formation.
  8. 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.
    • Basis: Anthropology.
    • 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.
  9. 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.
    • Basis: Biology.
    • 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. Denies real strategic choice for organizations. This is unrealistic.
  10. 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.
    • Basis: Context.
    • 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, that 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. But periodically there is a need for transformation. And to be able to manage that disruptive process without destroying the organization. The way of strategy formation must adapt to its own time and context, while it takes one or more of the 10 mentioned forms. Therefore strategy formation itself has configurations.
    • 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.

Usage of the Ten Schools of Thought

  • Very good introduction and overview to the entire field of strategic management.

Strengths of the Ten Schools of Thought

  • Useful illumination of the origins and characteristics of the different schools of thought in strategy formation.
  • Understand, appreciate and exploit the differences in strategy approaches.

Limitations of the Ten Schools of Thought

  • Other classifications of the field of strategy formation are possible.
  • Additional major Schools could be:  Strategy Dynamics, Resource Based View.
  • The complexity of the 10 schools may initially scare aspirant-strategists.

Source: Henry Mintzberg, Bruce Ahlstrand, Joseph Lampel – Strategy Safari – A Guided Tour Through The Wilds Of Strategic Management

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