The Messy Business of Management

Today’s executives — and tomorrow’s business leaders — need the ability to address complex, messy problems, think critically and question their own assumptions.

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Are you prepared to handle a mess?

In a period of rapid technological and business change, successful executives particularly need the ability to think critically — and to be aware that some of their most cherished assumptions may at any point be challenged or invalidated by changing events. Consider, for example, how many financiers’ optimistic assumptions about the markets for securitized subprime mortgage assets were challenged by the meltdown of those markets and the financial crisis in 2008.

Today’s executives need to be able to address complex, messy problems. As the late organizational scholar Russell L. Ackoff once put it, “Managers don’t solve simple, isolated problems; they manage messes.” Ackoff was also instrumental in defining the nature of such messes. According to him, a mess is a system of constantly changing, highly interconnected problems, none of which is independent of the other problems that constitute the entire mess. As a result, no problem that is part of a mess can be defined and solved independently of the other problems. Accordingly, the ability to manage messes requires the ability to think and to manage systemically; this in turn requires that one understand systems thinking.

In organizations, successfully addressing complex, messy problems also requires constructive conflict and structured debate with others to help test one’s assumptions — and help ensure that one is not solving the wrong problem. Many business schools excel at teaching young managers well-structured models, theories and frameworks. But we believe that business schools should spend more time helping their students surface, debate and test the assumptions underlying each model, theory or framework they are learning about. In this way, by developing students’ critical thinking skills, universities would prepare young business leaders to succeed in a messy, uncertain world.


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