Several months ago, I spoke briefly with a manager during the lunch break in a senior management workshop. This followed a presentation by the Divisional MD, in which he had comprehensively overturned the performance projections that had been presented only a few minutes earlier by the local finance managers. This sudden 'about turn' had taken managers by surprise and sparked many such informal conversations during the break.
I suggested to the manager that, despite outward appearances, what he and his colleagues were actually doing, day-in-day-out, was "muddling through"1. And that this latest intervention was just another example of the messy reality of real-world organizational life - both a product and producer of that ongoing messiness. Muddling through, I suggested, is simply the best that we can do, if we are to take seriously the complex and uncertain dynamics of organization in which we are all participating.
I was not meaning to suggest by this that managers can't make a difference by their actions. Clearly they can. Less still was I arguing that they should throw up their hands in despair. But I did remind him of what we'd discussed on many previous occasions: That is, that managers need to pay attention to what they actually find themselves doing in practice, rather than being overly fixated by the formal structures, rituals and routines of organization. This was, after all, the essence of our many previous discussions on what I call "the wiggly world of organization".
Eighteen months on, I found myself at last weekend’s annual Complexity and Management Conference, held at Roffey Park. Saturday’s programme was structured around inputs by Ralph Stacey, Chris Mowles, and Emma Crewe, who are faculty members of the Doctor of Management (DMan) programme of the University of Hertfordshire. The broad question that we were addressing was "Can leaders change organisational culture?" The semi-formal inputs were interlaced with small-group conversations around some of the themes that had emerged in the course of the ‘presentations’ and open-forum discussions.
I would broadly express one such theme as, "So what is it that those in leadership positions can do, if they can’t change culture in the way that conventional ‘wisdom’ presumes that they can? " In response to this, I offered to initiate a small-group conversation based on the following proposition:
"'Muddling through' is not something that managers do until they can find an optimum way to proceed. It’s the very best that they can do. "
Besides reprising my earlier, client-manager conversation, this also echoed similar sentiments expressed in a book that I’d recently come across by Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz on "the techno-human condition" (Allenby and Sarewitz, 2011:110). In it, they say:
"… importantly, muddling through is not a second-best process to be dropped when appropriate optimization techniques are developed: it is the best we can do."
An example of muddling through in action
Eventually, some ten of us settled down in a Roffey Park ‘pod’ (i.e. break-out room!), to explore this notion of muddling through. Initially, there was a mixture of agreement, curiosity, and some scepticism. Then, for 90 minutes or so, we enjoyed a rich conversation, which one of our number pointed out was itself an example of muddling through in action. By the end of the session, I think it is fair to say that the general proposition resonated strongly with most – if not all – of the participants.
A colleague from Norway spoke of how he'd had to cope (in a 'muddling through' sort of way) with the challenges presented by a particularly dangerous stretch of water off the Scottish coast, which he’d succeeded in navigating when sailing with some initially reluctant friends. He drew an analogy between this and the process of dealing with uncertainty and complexity in the day-to-day exigencies of organizational life. He also stressed what he saw as the critical importance that courage plays in this. Others discussed a variety of examples from their own experience as organizational practitioners of one kind or another, whether acting as in-house managers or external consultants.
Despite some unease with the phrase itself, the general thrust of the discussion strongly supported the argument that muddling through accurately describes the essence of what managers do in practice. And that this is all that managers can do, given the complex and uncertain nature of human interaction. At the same time, they acknowledged that those who pay deliberate attention to the quality of their own (and others’) participation in that process are likely to become better able to muddle through in ways that facilitate more useful outcomes (however constructed). By "quality of participation" here, the general view was that this meant acting into the future with purpose and courage, and doing so skilfully (i.e. applying practical judgement in the midst of its emergence).
Finally, we recognized that when the muddling through happens to coincide with outcomes that are judged to be successful, it is always possible in retrospect to construct a rational (albeit fantasy-based) explanation of how such success was brought about. Indeed it might be argued (as I did in Informal Coalitions) that the ability to do so is a political necessity. But we should not kid ourselves that this rational pathway through the real-world dynamics of organization would actually have worked in practice. Or that this offers the prospect of replacing muddling through with rational design and textbook management practices. We might be able to reverse-engineer technological products, processes and systems to discover a replicable and ordered way forward. But no such approach is possible when it comes to the complex social process of human interaction – however much advocates of mainstream management practice (and some complexity theorists) might suggest that it is.
I’ll reflect a little more on the purpose, courage, skilful, and ‘reverse-engineering’ points in a future post.
1 NOTE: American Professor of Politics and Economics Charles E. Lindblom used this term in his 1959 paper on approaches to public policy making: The Science of "Muddling Through". In it, he advocated what he described as an incremental approach of "Successive Limited Comparisons" in contrast to the "Rational-Comprehensive" perspective, which reflected the dominant view. There are some parallels between what Lindblom is saying and the thrust of this post, although I'm suggesting here that "muddling through" is what managers do anyway - regardless of what they might set out to do, or what they think that they are doing when they adopt what Lindblom might describe as the "rational-comprehensive" tools of conventional management practice. I would also see muddling through (and organizational dynamics in general) as a complex social process, rather than as a science of any kind.