Muddling through as smart strategy

There’s a certain subset of academic articles that are as, or more, famous for their titles as they are for their insights. Charles Lindblom’s “The Science of Muddling Through” has to be on that list. Lindblom’s field was public policy but his insights are more broadly applicable. 

He starts with a simple enough observation; administrators don’t behave the way that theory says they should. Textbook decision processes of carefully articulating objectives, developing options, and selecting solutions that optimally meet objectives don’t show up in the wild. Real managers “muddle through,” making incremental changes and nudging complex systems in directions they hope will prove “better.” 

Lindblom’s insightful question was to wonder whether administrators weren’t as dumb as they looked. Theorists have the luxury of pretending that history doesn’t exist; real managers always start from Ken Boulding’s observation that “things are the way they are because they got that way.” The real world always imposes real constraints. 

The simplifying assumptions that economists and model builders must use to make their work tractable can be acceptable for simple enough problems. It’s dangerous to believe that the techniques that work for suitably constrained problems scale. Problems up the ladder aren’t simply bigger, they are more complex. That complexity transforms tractable problems into wicked problems.

“Muddling through” is what actually works; the primary metric for practicing managers.