Patterns in Strategy Formation

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A critical summary of the article “Patterns in strategy formation” written by Henry Mintzberg, published in Journal Management Science Vol. 24, No. 9, (1978)

A short overview
The paper,”Patterns in strategy formation”, outlines a new kind of description to the much misunderstood process of strategy formation in organizations. After giving a short summary of the theme, the author, Henry Mintzberg, describes the term “strategy” and shows how the definition leads to the choice of a research methodology. Following this, he details the four steps of research methodology. With to completed, major studies about two organizations (Volkswagenwerk and the United States government in Vietnam) Mintzberg analyzes three central themes. The first is that strategy formation can be viewed as the interplay between a dynamic environment and bureaucratic momentum, with leadership mediating between the two. Second, that strategy formation over periods of time appears to follow distinct regularities, for example life cycles or change-continuity cycles within life cycle. And third the study of the interplay between intended and realized strategies may be central to the strategy formation process.

Definition of strategy and the research methodology
In the first section of the paper, Mintzberg describes the term ”strategy”. Strategy is generally defined, whether in game, military or management theory, as a deliberate, conscious set of guidelines that determines decisions into the future. In common terminology, a strategy is a plan. Mintzberg illustrates that defining strategy as a plan is not sufficient, because if strategies can be intended, surely they can also be realized. A definition that encompasses the resulting behavior is therefore required. The author proposes to define strategy in general as a pattern in a stream of decisions. To clarify this definition of strategy, he introduces a few illustrations. For example, when Picasso painted blue for a time, that was a strategy ”Blue Strategy”. This definition of strategy necessitated the analysis of decision streams in a organizations over time periods to detect the development and breakdown of patterns. Therefore Mintzberg subdivided the analysis of the studies into four central steps.

1st step: Collection of basic data.
2nd step: Inference of strategies and periods of change.
3rd step: Intensive analysis of periods of change.
4th step: Theoretical analysis.

After giving a brief review of the periods of strategy in two organizations, using the terminology of the research, the author comes to the core of the paper, which is the presentation of some theoretical conclusions about strategy formation.

Strategy formation as the interplay of environment, leadership and bureaucracy Mintzberg outlines strategy formation in most organizations as the interplay of three basic forces revolving around the dynamic environment that changes continuously but irregularly, organizational management or bureaucracy that attempts to stabilize the actions of the organizations whilst operating in the dynamic environment, and leadership of the organizations whose role is to mediate between the two forces. From this point of departure, the author provides a definition of strategy and of strategic change. ”Strategy can then be viewed as the set of consistent behaviors by which the organization establishes for a time its place in its environment, and strategic change can be viewed as the organization's response to environmental change, constrained by the momentum of the bureaucracy and accelerated or dampened by the leadership”. Mintzberg illustrates, that the two organizations (Volkswagenwerk and U.S. government in Vietnam) are stories of how bureaucratic momentum constrains and leadership dampens strategic change. In 1965, for example, when the United States government escalated the Vietnam war in a way that made the escalation inevitable, the new leadership, named...
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