For 60 years we have been arguing about how rational we are….It was 1959 when Charles Lindblom published an article entitled The Science of ‘Muddling Through’ disputing the view that strategic decision-making in organisations did (or even should) consist of an exhaustive process of optimisation - and arguing instead that strategy was more akin to “a never-ending process of successive steps in which continual nibbling is a substitute for a good bite”.
Lindblom’s writings were more focused on government but “struck a chord” in the business world too. Cyert & March’s A Behavioural Theory of the Firm (1963) explored this idea from a number of angles, but one of the first clear articulations was by Henry Mintzberg in his publication Patterns in Strategy Formation (1978). Here Mintzberg framed the ‘adaptive mode’ in sharp contrast to a ‘planning mode’ which was considered a “highly ordered, neatly integrated [approach], with strategies developed on schedule by a purposeful organisation.”
By that stage, I had ten years of political experience as an elected Councillor under my belt. First in the shape of the community action I encouraged - inspired by the work of not only of Saul Alinsky but of the anarchist thinker Ivan Illich whose Deschooling Society I would frequently call into play. And then, in 1971, came the chance of some managerial responsibility when I became (for 3 years) a Chairman of the new Social Work system then being established in Scotland….
It was a tension I not only recognised but celebrated in a paper I wrote for the Local Government Research Unit I had set up in 1971 – “From Community Action to Corporate Management”
In 1980, James Quinn published Strategies for Change in which he studied how companies actually went about formulating strategies. He found that they proceeded by trial and error, constantly revising their strategy in the light of new learnings, which he called “logical incrementalism”. Critics felt this sounded suspiciously like just having no strategy, but Quinn strongly denied this, arguing that there were great benefits to formalising the process.
In 1985, Of Strategies, Deliberate and Emergent, Mintzberg honed his views on what he now called Emergent strategy. He playfully argued that strategies should grow initially like weeds in a garden, not cultivated like tomatoes in a hothouse. That the process can be over-managed and
“sometimes it is more important to let patterns emerge, than to force an artificial consistency upon an organisation prematurely”.
At this time I had enrolled in the country’s first (part-time) course in Policy Analysis – at Strathclyde University and led by Lewis Gunn – in which Lindblom figured as a major character. Indeed my thesis was on “organisational learning” – just a few years before Peter Senge’s seminal “The Fifth Discipline” (1990)
Indeed the growth of Behavioural Economics since the millennium was at one stage the most promising evidence that we were developing a more balanced view of the role of reason (click the phrase and, from p219, you will get a 25 page list of the most popular books on the topic!).
But then fake news came into the picture – William Davies’ “Nervous States – democracy and the Decline of Reason” looks an excellent analysis of the issue