Just call me a Mess Manager

Researching for the first chapter of Open University course #TU811, I came across the following quote by Russell Ackoff:

Manager’s are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations Messes. Problems are extracted from messes by analysis. Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.



While initially this made me chuckle – a mess is something I normally correspond with my son, a pot of Nutella, and limited adult supervision – I took a bit of time to think this through and its led me to the conclusion that maybe my job description should be changed to Environments Mess Manager

There are (primarily) two considerations when considering the complexity of an issue: number of variables, and number of perspectives.

Thus the levels can be mapped out on a table:

Single Perspective Multiple Perspectives
Few Variables A Difficulty A Mess
Many Variables  A Complicated Difficulty A Complex Mess

A mind-map may be a easier way to visualise the variables and perspectives to consider when deciding whether something is a Mess – here is one I knocked up in about 10 minutes using Mind42 (note that the term ‘Wicked’ Problem is another term that could be used in lieu of Mess. This term was coined by Rittel and Webber in 1973.)

The term ‘Complex Mess‘ could easily be applied in this context to such global issues as Climate Change, Deforestation, Terrorism or War. There are multiple perspectives and many variables which have coalesced to create a tangle of problems. Pull one thread and other knots appear. There is no single solution that will satisfy everyone – and indeed any solution that is taken could make the situation worse later as the variables are dynamic.

As I mapped this out though, I did find the the term ‘Mess’ is something that I could easily label to scenarios that I have seen in work – and to a lesser degree even within my own extended family at times!

As a Environments Manager, I have dealt with fragile legacy infrastructure (situation), teams working in silo’s (people), projects which don’t always seem to know what they are doing (thinking), companies resistant to change or with very set cultural norms (people), projects which span multiple departments or companies (situation, people and thinking)a mish-mish of methodologies (thinking) , lack of funding (situation)… the list can go on and on. The more of these type of variables I see in a project, the more I get that sinking feeling of unease that ‘something is probably going to go wrong’ and the more I tend to find I start unconsciously contingency planning.

Obviously variables and perspectives are not going to be the only factors at play in a mess; change and uncertainty are also big ticket items – but I would argue that these are categories of variables – albeit very big ones with giant flashing warning lights on them.

A question to ponder – are messes avoidable?

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