The Fundamental Problem in Management

The fundamental problem in management is that the world is uncertain, and people hate dealing with uncertainty.

The result of this that they go to great lengths to provide themselves with the illusion of certainty. The Bed of Procrustres by Taleb, which I discussed previously, is primarily concerned with the problems caused by false certainty.

Uncertainty

The problem with requiring certainty is that when you do, you fail to act. If you have to know in advance whether or not your innovation will succeed, you won’t innovate. If you have to know in advance whether or not your co-workers will perform, you won’t delegate. If you have to know in advance whether or not your idea will be accepted, you won’t put it forward.

All of the bad aspects of bureaucracy come from trying to build systems that provide certainty in a world that is by its very nature uncertain.

The more businesses I work in and talk with, the more convinced I become that the single most important management skill to develop is a tolerance for ambiguity.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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12 thoughts on “The Fundamental Problem in Management

  1. Totally correct, Tim. Like most things, it’s a balance. Companies should not drive into the dark without headlights, equally there’s no point waiting until it’s daylight again. The best companies use belief and intuition as well as data to aggressively implement innovation. Management prefers data, leadership prefers action.

  2. Tim:
    Same in government, made more complicated by the low tolerance for risk. Without getting into the management vs. leadership debate (we’re with Stephen Denning, under in uncertain environments the distinction is a false one: http://www.stevedenning.com/Books/radical-management.aspx), we’re working on defining the practices leaders need to achieve good things. Would love you thoughts: http://enhancingworkforceleadership.org/WeadershipGuide

  3. TIm, I really identify with this term “tolerance for ambiguity”. For my first several years at Battelle it was one of the key criteria that all staff were measured against during annual reviews. It reflected the constant uncertainty of our business environment: contract R&D. One needs to have that mindset in order to excel and produce innovations when customer priorities and budges are in near constant flux. The most successful people I have met at Battelle have an amazing capacity to adapt and morph, connect the dots and deliver innovations in a constantly changing environment that might drive some others mad.

  4. Thanks for the comment Jerad. I’m glad to hear that your experience is consistent with this. And it’s great that Batelle actually uses tolerance for ambiguity as part of their annual review process!