In discussing the complex and uncertain nature of everyday organizational life, I have earlier suggested (here, for example) that what managers do in practice is that they “muddle through”. I was intrigued, therefore, when someone drew my attention to General Sir Richard Dannatt’s autobiography, “Leading from the Front”, in which he is very dismissive of the notion. Basically, he equates it with a lack of leadership - an approach that he considers to be “aimless”. In his most damning comment, he uses the term to attack what he sees as an unwillingness of politicians to properly resource the tasks that it demands of the armed forces:
“If you want to do it, you have to be prepared to pay for it – muddling through on the goodwill of our servicemen and women is immoral.”
And here, I think, we have a clue as to why he is so disdainful of the idea. It seems to me that he is using the term very much in an ‘everyday’ sense, in which it might well be taken to mean a lack of purpose coupled with muddled thinking. But, as I’ve argued here and in other forums, managers have no option but to muddle through. And doing this with purpose, courage, and skill is the very best that they can do.
So why is Sir Richard so derisive in his comments?
His autobiography provides an interesting account of his distinguished army career, interwoven with aspects of his personal life. It covers the period from his first post-Sandhurst role in Northern Ireland in 1971, through to his retirement from the armed services, as Chief of the General Staff, in 2009/10. His formative experience in relation to his views on “muddling through” occurred in Belfast in 1972, in the aftermath of “Bloody Sunday”. As a second lieutenant, he sought guidance from a visiting General on what to do in relation to a problem that they were facing between Catholics and Protestants in the area that they were patrolling.
In response to his question about what they should do, the General, “put his arm on my shoulder and said: ‘Well, Richard, we’ve got broad shoulders in the British Army – just muddle through!”. As he said, he learned a lesson from this, “which really shaped things for me later on.” And so, on a number of other occasions in the book, he uses the term “muddling through” in a pejorative way: “Something I have thoroughly disdained since Belfast in 1972”, for example. Or, "There must be a better way”.
A “better way”?
So what is this "better way"? According to Sir Richard,
“… we need to divide our thinking into three levels, the strategic, the operational, and the tactical. It is at the strategic level where the big thoughts are thought, where the broad ideas are conceived, and it is at the tactical level where the rubber hits the road and bullets fly. However, it is the level in between that is so critical, for this is where ideas are turned into practicalities, where a plan is produced that transforms concepts into a series of steps that take you from thought to action.”
All very neat - and un-muddled, of course!
Everyday lived reality
Despite this recipe for success, the book is replete with examples of General Dannatt’s own muddling through in practice (in the sense that I have described it earlier). These include those in his role as a commanding officer ‘on the ground’ in such places as Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq; as well as his later challenges dealing with Government Ministers, Whitehall mandarins, and the press, when he was a service chief and then Chief of the General Staff.
Given his descriptions of the military, political, economic, and social challenges that were coming at him from all angles, and his (sometimes frustrated but always purposeful) responses to these, he – like everyone else – had no option but to muddle through. That is, he was (in my terms) acting moment-by-moment into an unknowable future. And he was mostly doing so - or so it seems from the book - with purpose, courage, and skill.
To conclude, he says tellingly at one point,
“I suppose at the end of the day it is all about professional background and experience. I learnt a lot of theoretical stuff at Sandhurst about decision-making and leadership, but it is at the school of hard knocks in the operational field that a young platoon and company commander lays his foundations for high command. In difficult ground operations, among the civilian people you have gone to help and among your own soldiers who depend on you, there is no substitute for experience. Of course no one has a monopoly of wisdom; but, at the top level, wisdom comes from practical, often harsh experience, not just from textbooks, military academies and the Staff College.”
Learning from experience and using practical judgement in the midst of the real-world demands of organization is exactly what I mean by muddling through purposefully, courageously, and skilfully.
This post is based on a comment originally made in a LinkedIn discussion within the AMED Group.