Getting Outside Your Head – Managing the Mess

Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes
– Russell Ackoff

I’ve long been a fan of the late Russell Ackoff. This was one of his observations that continues to stick with me. As much as we like to think of the world as a set of discrete problems to be solved, reality insists on  being interconnected and messy. As I seek to understand and improve my own knowledge work practices, this is one of the pieces of wisdom I try to keep in mind.

One of the sources of mess that has been on my mind lately is scale. Things that seem obvious and simple always get messy as they get bigger. For example, I’ve just wrapped up a course on how to do requirements analysis. We run it as a field based course which means we work with local organizations to tackle a real problem. But it has to be a small enough problem that we can fit it into a semester’s worth of work.

I can require student teams to prepare the same work products that would be expected of them on the job but the problems aren’t big enough to make the need for some of those work products to be evident. Students do the work I ask of them, but they don’t really believe me when I assert that all of those products are relevant and important.

I’m probably irretrievably tainted by my early days in public accounting when I hung out with auditors. Now, this was so long ago that spreadsheets were still actual sheets of paper with rows and columns preprinted on them. Audits generated piles and piles of paper. The most natural thing in the world for an auditor faced with managing a stack of spreadsheets was to prepare another spreadsheet to serve as an index into the stack.

The physical scale of stacks of paper made this solution fairly obvious. Turn those stacks into bits, however, and the need to manage that scale problem disappears or, at least, fades into the background. If you can no longer see the mess, it won’t occur to you that it needs to be managed.

On a project team, there is often enough friction in dealing with multiple team members trying to coordinate their work that you can impose some level of control over the growing collection of digital materials being produced. But the usual pressures to “get to done” work against efforts to manage the mess. Persuading team members to give some thought to what they name that Excel file gets lost in the rush to work on what’s inside the file.

A sufficiently OCD project manager might prevail over a project team. Certain regulated environments can force the mess to be managed. But for individual knowledge workers, there are few incentives to deal with, or even recognize, the problems of managing the mess that is a digital work environment.

Getting work outside of your head is only a first step. Doing so gives you the capacity to take on problems that are too big to fit inside your head. Your reward for increasing your capacity is a set of bigger messes to manage.