Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Stuff happens!

When questioned about the death of Meredith Kercher, Amanda Knox responded “Shit happens!”. Her response differs little from that of Donald Rumsfeld’s “stuff happens” to the looting in Baghdad. He added that "They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that's what's going to happen here."

When something bad happens it may be an unintended consequence of some plan or event. But these things are rarely planned and predicted. Indeed, one of managers’ biggest problems is that so little can be predicted. Things come out of the blue, with a dynamic of their own. When asked what represented the greatest challenge for a statesman, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan replied: 'Events, my dear boy, events'.

As explained in The Search for Leadership, Rumsfeld is also known for saying “Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.” He was right, though was widely mocked over this remark.

Given his intelligence and his awareness of the huge knowledge vacuum present when taking shocking and awful decisions about the Iraq invasion, his level of confidence in the expected outcomes seems surprising. He expected the US troops to be welcomed with open arms. And he thought that the west’s gift of democracy would be equally welcome. Given his sayings, we might have expected greater modesty and some recognition of the need for a contingency plan. We now know that he believed none was needed, so sure was he of success. ‘Stuff happens’ is not embedded in his management planning method; it is an excuse when confronted by evidence of failure. Presumably, Fred Goodwin was equally sure of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s disastrous decision to purchase ABN Amro. We can predict that hubris will play a part in leaders’ decisions more easily than we can predict a successful outcome.

The work of Margaret Wheatley, Ralph Stacey and other writers on the complexity sciences reveals and explains the Achilles Heel in management’s claimed justification for their role; i.e. very little in this life can be predicted. So even the need for contingency plans, the usefulness of their diagnosis, or likely outcome cannot be predicted.

Wheatley’s conclusion (see Leadership and the New Science) is to seek to control less, try to manage more simply, be more humble, and allow a greater role for nature to produce order out of chaos. It won’t stop death, but it may happen further from one’s own interventions.