In this first, simple, metalogue (written in 1948) Gregory Bateson imagines a conversation between a daughter and her father.
“Why,” the daughter wants to know, “do things get in a muddle?”
They discuss this from various points of view and come to the conclusion that although ‘tidy’ means different things to different people, the ultimate reason that things get in a muddle is simply because there are more ways for things to be in a muddle than to be tidy.
This tells us something about the essence of management, and how leadership is different from management.
What Bateson Tells Us
A daughter asks her father, “Daddy, why do things get in a muddle?” After all “people spend a lot of time tidying things, but they never seem to spend time muddling them.”
They discuss this together and realise that things generally don’t get in a muddle when people leave them alone: they only get in a muddle when people touch them, usually other people.
Then they ask themselves what ‘muddled’ means and realise that it is when “I can’t find things.”
So although everyone would agree when things are in a muddle, and the opposite of ‘muddled’ would appear to be ‘tidy’, people have different ways of finding things so ‘tidy’ means different things to different people. (This is why the father doesn’t like it when other people ‘tidy’ his desk.)
Tidy means that everything is in the place where it belongs. And not only in the right place, but also positioned correctly, not crooked or haphazard.
They realise that “there are more ways which you can call ‘untidy’ than there are ways which you can call ‘tidy’.” There are many more ways that a cup of sand and sugar can be mixed up together than there are ways for all the sugar to be on top and all the sand underneath (or vice-versa). There are many more ways for the letters of the alphabet to be mixed up together than there are ways for six letters to be picked out to spell DONALD.
This is why, if you saw a movie of a box containing letters being shaken about and six of the letters suddenly came together to spell the word ‘DONALD’ you would know that the movie was running backwards. (“All of science is hooked up with this reason,” Bateson tells us, and in science it is called ‘entropy‘.)
The reason that things get in a muddle is that there are “millions and millions” of ways of positioning letters, grains of sand, and sugar that we would call a ‘muddle’, and only a very few ways that we would call ‘tidy’.
Although deceptively simple, this metalogue tells us something very important and deep about the nature of management and leadership. Something that is especially relevant during times of change.
Any business is made up of many thousands if not millions of different things, the actions we perform each day.
For that business to succeed, these actions all have to come together in a way that is kept ‘tidy’ rather than ‘muddled’: the actions have to be carried out at the right time, at the right cost and price, to deliver the right service to the customer in the right way.
If the business is kept ‘tidy’ then it makes a profit. If the business becomes ‘muddled’ then it makes a loss. And there are many more ways for the business to be muddled than there are ways for it to be tidy.
Keeping the business ‘tidy’ in this way is the role of management. This is about making sure everything happens in the right way at the right time for the right cost. Everything has to be in roughly the right place, not too crooked or haphazard. And when something unexpected happens, as often happens during a time of change — an open window blows things out of place, a visitor drops something or knocks it by mistake — it is the role of management to get things ‘tidy’ again as quickly as possible.
All businesses need some form of mechanism to keep their activities ‘tidy’ in this way. It doesn’t have to be ‘management’ the way we are used to it. But without constant tidying the business is bound to become ‘muddled’ as different people revert to their own definitions of what tidy means.
Leadership is different.
As the world changes over time, new technologies change what is possible, competitors and suppliers develop new definitions of what ‘tidy’ can mean, and customers develop new definitions of what ‘tidy’ means to them.
The role of leadership is to get people to develop new definitions of ‘tidy’ for the business, definitions that employees, customers and suppliers can all agree on. It is about convincing people to let go of their old definitions of ‘tidy’ and adopt new shared meanings. It is about keeping some of the old definitions of tidy running at the same time as the new ones are developed: deciding which forms of ‘tidy’ to keep (for now) and which ones to let go, when.
In a time when so much around us is churning and changing, this simple question “Why do things get in a muddle?” brings to the essence of management and leadership:
— Management is about keeping the business tidy
— Leadership is about enabling things and actions to become muddled (but not too muddled), so that better definitions of tidy can be developed. And it is about then convincing others to adopt these new definitions of tidy together.