In the previous post, I suggested that the most accurate way to describe what managers do in practice is that they "muddle through". Crucially, this is not some second-best response to the challenges that they face. It’s the only thing that they can do, given the social complexities of everyday organizational life.
However, this sits uneasily with the assumptions that still govern mainstream management thinking. From that perspective, performance is seen as the result of formal, rational analysis of ‘the facts’; step-by-step decision-making by people whose agendas are fully aligned; and the seamless translation of those decisions into programmable action ‘on the ground’. In Informal Coalitions, I sought to expose this as a fiction. I argued there that ‘outcomes’ arise instead from informal interactions, joint sense-making, and political accommodations, made by people who are trying to make a difference in the complex, uncertain and ambiguous conditions that they experience day to day.
So, despite the formal rhetoric, rituals, and routines of organization, based on assumptions of scientific rationality, predictability, and control, managers still spend most of their time doing the only thing that they can do: They muddle through.
Acting with purpose, courage, and skill
That having been said, some managers clearly do this well, and others are less accomplished. As regards 'doing it well’, I suggested in the previous post that this is about muddling through with purpose, courage, and skill. So what does this mean?
First, muddling through with purpose is about acting into an unknowable future, but doing this in the midst of ongoing, sense-making conversations about why we are doing what we are doing. It might also extend to questions about what desired ‘outcomes’ we might usefully (re-)focus on in the 'here and now'. And how we might set about enabling these to come about. At the same time, the objective is not to produce some kind of detailed plan or ‘blueprint’ for the future. Instead, the aim is for those involved to become so immersed in these conversations that, when the real world happens, they are better placed to deal with whatever emerges. It also means acknowledging that, although we might act with intent in doing this, we still can't be certain what will actually happen in practice.
Secondly, as regards muddling through with courage, I can do no better than to quote Ralph Stacey when he says, "Leadership is having the courage to go on participating creatively despite not knowing" (my emphasis).
Finally, what does it mean to muddle through with skill? As outlined earlier, the focus of muddling through is on the practical reality of people’s ongoing interactions: What is emerging in them? What habitual and contingent themes are organizing these conversations? How dynamic are the conversations? And how am I and others participating in these exchanges? It’s here, in the specific local context, that practitioners can focus on and influence their own and others’ practice in the midst of their ongoing interactions - drawing out the contextual factors, dominant conversational themes, prevalent behavioural patterns (both characteristic and unexpected), and assumptions, etc. that appear to be organizing people’s interactions, and enabling and constraining their own and others’ practice. So, doing this skilfully is about applying "practical judgement", as Stacey and Chris Mowles call it (or "practical wisdom", as Keith Grint, Bent Flyvbjerg, and others refer to the practice). By this they mean managers pragmatically applying experience-based judgement in the specific circumstances they are facing. This is in stark contrast to the usual management prescriptions, based on the context-free use of knowledge, tools and techniques that are supposedly scientifically derived and universally applicable.
… and with awareness
As a final point, I would suggest that one of the most important advances that we can make is to help managers to become consciously aware of what they already know instinctively. That is, that the seemingly disjointed and fragmentary nature of their day-to-day inter(actions) - what I’m calling here "muddling through" - is not a sign of dysfunction or substandard performance. On the contrary, it is the very essence of their role. And that doing this with purpose, courage, skill, and awareness, is the very best that they – or anyone else - can do.