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The IMPM: a trailblazer comes of age

Professor Henry Mintzberg

17 June 2015

Twenty years ago the International Masters in Practicing Management (IMPM) emerged to offer a radically different form of management education for senior managers, one which broke with conventional approaches to ‘teaching’ and prescribed syllabi. Professor Henry Mintzberg explains why it has lasting value.

The IMPM set out to provide a radical alternative to traditional MBAs, particularly the prevailing American model with its heavy emphasis on case study method. This had been roundly criticised by Mintzberg as encouraging managers to reach for the most immediate – but often superficial – solutions to problems.

“I had been writing lots of articles badmouthing MBA programs and what was wrong with them, and then people began asking me, what are you doing about it?” That direct challenge set Mintzberg and a small team at McGill University thinking: “We started to brainstorm what a program for educating managers would look like. But then we decided we couldn’t do it on our own, and we started to reach out to other schools to partner.”

One of those original partners was Lancaster, initially through Dr Jonathan Gosling, then working on executive programmes within the School and now Professor of Leadership Studies at Exeter University. Other partners were INSEAD, where Mintzberg was also based, Hitotsubashi in Japan, and the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore.

Right from the start, the team wanted to break the mould, experimenting with new types of collaborative learning. The idea was to take leaders outside their comfort zone to generate fresh insights and foster a more critically reflective way of thinking about the daily practice of management.

“We had a good time designing it because we were more or less breaking all the norms and doing everything differently. We were solving problems.

“The difficulty has always been to convince people who would love to be in the program but don’t know about it that this is different and a lot better. It’s very hard to tell people who have an image of what education is about – maybe being lectured at or doing cases – how different this is. That’s the tough part, because as with any new technology, you have to live it and experience it.”

Those coming to the IMPM, either nominated by their company or selecting it for themselves, are highly experienced managers, at or near the top of their organisations. They are drawn to the idea of learning from sharing experiences with peers operating in different industries or different cultural contexts – something that lies at the heart of the program.

Innovations

So how has the IMPM changed over those years? In some ways not much, says Mintzberg. It has remained true to its founding philosophy and built on that, but faculty have become increasingly comfortable with the 50:50 rule, which dictates that half of the time is spent on participants’ own agendas. But in other ways he believes that the IMPM has added significant innovations.

The spirit of experimentation continues, resulting in innovations such as ‘friendly consulting’: “People come in with problems from their company or from their own jobs as managers, and their colleagues in the working groups help them think those through.”

One early innovation that has proved a very powerful source of learning is the ‘managerial exchange’. Here participants spend the better part of a week at each other’s workplaces, observing a colleague’s managerial practice and then feeding back those observations. This was embraced enthusiastically from the start, recalls Mintzberg – so much so that one pair jumped the gun, completing their exchange before any briefing and arriving back fired up with the cultural insights they had gained.

Another more recent development is ‘impact teams’, designed to cascade learning down the organisation and embed it within it. “We ask participants voluntarily to create teams back at home of other people they work with, either their reports as managers or other colleagues, and use their learning to bring other people into the programme virtually. We have sometimes even done that literally, bringing people from those impact teams into one of the modules.”

Impact

What was clear early on was that executives on the IMPM found it to be something special. Mintzberg recalls reactions in the first two years:

“We did the reflection module at Lancaster, and everyone was going around at the end saying ‘so great to meet you’, they were on such a high. And one of the guys, who turned out to be one of our best graduates, said ‘it was so great to meet myself’. I think that’s been a characteristic all the time.

“In the second cohort, a woman from Motorola polled the whole class on how many people felt the IMPM was a life-changing experience. Every single person but one said yes – and that one said that he wasn’t sure yet. So I think it always has a great impact.”

It is testament to the value of the IMPM that many of the companies who sent teams in the early years have continued to do ever since, including Lufthansa and LG. Other staunch supporters include Fujitsu, POSCO, the International Red Cross – first the Federation and later the Kenyan Red Cross – and the International HIV/AIDS Alliance.

Increasingly people are also joining as single participants – including entrepreneurs and those running smaller companies. There the impact can be especially marked:

“There was a guy from Toronto from a very small company. It was in difficulty and he had to assume the CEO position. He said at the last module that the IMPM had saved that company – that they never would have done what they did without him being on the IMPM.”

Changes in the partner schools, with the Brazilian school FGV/EBAPE and Renmin University Business School in China replacing INSEAD and Hitotsubashi, have also given participants the chance to visit two of the world’s most important emerging economies.

Where the IMPM will go next, and how it may develop, is not yet known. But one thing is sure: it continues to inspire Mintzberg himself.

“I almost never leave an IMPM classroom without being on an absolute high. I always say we should pay the participants because we learn as much as they learn.”