On Sunday, it will be a year since Carly Chynoweth’s piece on Management by muddling through was published in the Sunday Times. Her interest in the topic had been sparked by my blog post entitled, The 'beautiful, ugly truth' ... of organization and management, in which I had referred to, "... the muddling through nature of real-world management practice."
This notion of management as muddling through sits uncomfortably with established thinking on how organization works and how performance happens.
In particular, this perspective runs counter to the view that professional management practice is marked out by its pursuit of scientific rationality, predictability, and control. We see this reflected in the calls for practice to be “evidence-based”; the moves by representatives of professional bodies to standardize all aspects of the roles of managers and other organizational specialists; and the requirement for organization-related academic research to demonstrate a measureable benefit, if it is to be considered to be worthy of investment.
All of this presumes, first of all, that the scientific method is capable of discovering universal, ‘if you do this, you’ll get that’ truths. Secondly, it takes for granted the idea that this same methodology can be applied to the complex social process of human interaction that we call “the organization”.
At this stage, I’ll just share a few extracts from the Prologue that reflect the theme and tone of the book, and which resonate strongly with an informal coalitions/wiggly world/muddling through view of organizational dynamics.
Challenging conventional wisdom
“The familiar story”, they say, “goes like this: the ‘scientific method’ always starts from stable, given facts – observations, measurements in the form of numbers, isolated and purified substances that are part of an unchanging, solid reality. Logic then compels the assembling (a process carefully controlled by existing theory) of these indisputable pieces of the real world into a theory which literally re-presents that world: a perfect match that, when done correctly, admits no doubt.”
They then set out to challenge these conventional accounts, saying: “ We can no longer excuse the errors and simplifications on which such popular tales are based, no longer afford to have this view of the sciences circulate in the social and political realms. The stakes are too high.”
For now, I’ll just highlight three statements that run counter to these “conventional accounts”:
- “Facts are not found, but made. The scientific method does not discover truth, it produces it.”
- “Theory and language refract the world, not reflect it… thestatus [of a theory] as “truth” depends less on faithful reflection of a pre-existent world, than on the viability, strength, or robustness of a tangle of connections, or articulations.”
- “Science is never neutral, but always charged, moving in a field of cultural and political forces... the affinities among the sciences, politics, and cultures… are quite real; they shape and shade what we know, what we call truth, reason, nature, and justice.”
So Fortun and Bernstein set out to reposition our understanding of science and the scientific method in terms that are much more congruent with the complex dynamics (or wiggliness) of the real world, and with the unavoidably human nature of those scientists and researchers who practise it.
The title of the book? It’s Muddling Through: Pursuing science and truth in the 21st Century. As the authors say, “… we have to engage with the sciences as the kinds of activities they have always been, the only kind of activities they can be: muddling through.”
To paraphrase Fortun and Bernstein, and as I have similarly argued in the Sunday Times article and elsewhere, we have to engage with organization and management as the kinds of activities they have always been, the only kind of activities they can be: muddling through.