The Design School: Reconsidering the Basic Premises of Strategic Management Henry Mintzberg Faculty of Management, Mcgill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Topics: Strategy dynamics, Strategic management, Management Pages: 49 (17832 words) Published: October 27, 2012
Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 11, 171-195 (1990)


Among the schools of thought on strategy formation, one in particular underlies almost all prescription in the field. Referred to as the 'design school', it proposes a simple model that views the process as one of design to achieve an essential fit between external threat and opportunity and internal distinctive competence. A number of premises underlie this model: that the process should be one of consciously controlled thought, specifically by the chief executive; that the model must be kept simple and informal; that the strategies produced should be unique, explicit, and simple; and that these strategies should appear fully formulated before they are implemented. This paper discusses and then critiques this model, focusing in particular on the problems of the conscious assessment of' strengths and weaknesses, of the need to make strategies explicit, and of the separation between formulation and Implementation. In so doing, it calls into question some of the most deep-seated beliefs in the field of strategic management, including its favorite method of pedagogy.

The literature that can be subsutned under 'strategy formation' is vast, diverse and, since 1980, has been growing at an astonishing rate. There has been a general tendency to date it back to the mid-1960s, although some important publications precede that date, such as Newman's initial piece 'to show the nature and importance of strategy' (p. iii) in the 1951 edition of his textbook Administrative Action (1951: 110-118). Of course the literature on military strategy goes back much further, in the case of Sun Tzu probably to the fourth century B.C. (Griffith, in Sun Tzu, 1971: ix). A good deal of this literature naturally divides itself into distinct schools of thought. In another publication (Mintzberg, 1989), this author has identified ten of these. Three are prescriptive in orientation, treating strategy formation as a process of conceptual design, of formal planning, and of analytical positioning (the latter including much of the research on the content of competitive strategies). Six other schools deal with specific aspects of the process in a descriptive way, and 0143-2095/90/030171-25$12.50 © 1990 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

are labeled the entrepreneurial school (concerned with strategy formation as a visionary process), the cognitive school (a mental process), the learning school (an emergent process), and the environmental school (a passive process). A final school, also descriptive, but integrative and labeled configurational, by seeking to delineate the stages and sequences of the process, helps to place the findings of these other schools in context. This paper addresses itself to the first of these schools, in some ways the most entrenched of the ten. Its basic framework underlies almost all prescription in this field and, accordingly, has had enormous impact on how strategy and the strategy-making process are conceived in practice as well as in education and research. Hence our discussion, and especially critique, of this school can in some ways be taken as a commentary on the currently popular beliefs in the field of strategic management in general. Our intention, however, is not to dismiss so important a school of thought, but rather to understand it better Received 14 December 1987 Revised 22 May 1989


H. Mintzberg
appeared in 1965 (by Learned, Christensen, Andrews, and Guth) and quickly became the dominant textbook in the field, as well as the dominant voice for this school of thought.^ Certainly its text portion, attributed in the various editions to co-author Kenneth Andrews (who also published this material separately (Andrews, 1971, 1980a, 1987)) stands as the most outspoken and one of the clearest statements...
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