Every Sunday, during the Pienaar's Politics programme on BBC Radio 5Live, there is a section entitled, Backbenchers Questions. Yesterday, it was the turn of Bob Stewart, MP for Beckenham and one-time Colonel in the British Army, to take the hot seat.
At one point, stand-in host Chris Mason asked him whether or not he was confident about the forthcoming negotiations on Brexit.
"In the end," he replied, "We always muddle through and get something."
"Is muddle through good enough, though?" challenged Mason.
"That's what happens in life," said Stewart, with a hint of incredulity in his voice that anyone should ask such a question.
And so it is. Muddling through is what happens in life. It's what all of us do. All of the time.
Mason signed-off the section by describing Colonel Stewart as, “A passionate ‘muddler througher’”.
Interplay of intentions
Of course, as we go about our day-to-day lives, we don’t just cross our fingers and hope. We think things through. We make plans. We rely on many of the existing structures, systems, rituals, and routines to give us a sense of order, predictability, and control. At least we do so some of the time.
We shouldn’t forget, though, that other people are doing the same. They, like us, are acting into (and hence co-creating) this continuously emerging future. And, like us, they're doing so according to their own interpretations; in pursuit of their own interests; and motivated by their own ideologies. Also like us, this doing is shaped by their ongoing interactions with other people. People who are similarly engaged in living their own lives. And so it goes on...
It's through the widespread interplay of these many, many interactions that outcomes emerge in practice. Outcomes that none of us planned and none of us intended to happen. At least not in the specific ways that things tend to turn out in practice.
Given this, all that any of us can do is to muddle through the complex, uncertain and ambiguous process of ‘going on together’ that we call life.
This is not what's supposed to happen, of course. We are meant to be too knowledgeable and sophisticated for this to be the case. Or, if we are not so ourselves, there are supposed to be others we can count on to act on our behalf. We therefore tend to go along with the established 'wisdom' that things will turn out as planned, provided that we – and/or those acting for us - do the right things and do them right.
Taking our own experience seriously
Deep down, of course, we know that it's not really like that. We know that the way in which we talk about how things are supposed to happen often bears little resemblance to our everyday lived experience. But it is rare for us to admit openly that we agree with what Colonel Stewart insightfully said on yesterday’s radio programme. That what happens in life is that we muddle through.
If, though, we take our own experience seriously, we will realise that this is very much the case. And that the often disjointed and fragmentary nature of our day-to-day (inter)actions is the very essence of human being and human doing. Setting out to participate in this process with purpose, courage, and skill then becomes the very best that we – and anyone else - can do.
Postscript - More thoughts on muddling through
You can find some other thoughts of mine on muddling through in the following posts:
- Muddling through with purpose, courage, and skill.
- More on the “muddling through” nature of real-world management practice.
- The “beautiful, ugly truth” of organization and management.
- Politics and muddling through.
- Endorsement of “management as muddling through” in Sunday Times.
- Getting in a muddle over muddling through.
- Management by muddling through – It’s science, but not as we know it.