We examine the present in light of the past
so as to better understand the future.
John Maynard Keynes

* With apologies to Karl von Clausewitz

The Mirage of Certainty

In The Republic, Plato explains how people can become so frightened of the world around them that they turn away from the world and reject it. He describes a group of people living in a cave, who believe that the shadows they can see on the cave walls are the only reality. When they are taken into the outside world for the first time, they are shocked, startled, afraid. Rejecting what they see, they retreat into the cave and stay there, preferring the illusion of the shadows to the reality of daylight.

It was Gareth Morgan in Images of Organization that first got me thinking about the cave and its implications. Morgan uses the cave as the basis for one of his eight metaphors of organisation, the ‘psychic prison’. In psychic prisons, people are trapped in their current ways of thinking and cannot break out of them. Any new idea or new thought represents a threat to the established reality. Some people like these challenges and threats and advance eagerly to meet them. Others are not able to cope with uncertainty and back away, retreating into the cave.

In my forthcoming book, Managing for Success (http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/managing-for-success-9781472904966/ ) , I have tried to go a little further and look at the consequences that fear, especially fear of uncertainty, plays in modern business. One thing I have seen over and over again is the desire by managers and leaders to eliminate uncertainty, in the apparent belief that if they can do so, success will follow. Eliminate all the variables, the thinking seems to go, and then we can construct a clear roadmap to the future.

This has a number of consequences. One is what I call ‘obsessive-compulsive planning disorder’, where companies spend so much of their time planning for every eventuality that they become distracted from what they really should be doing, i.e. serving customers. Another is an absolute belief in metrics, clinging to the adage of ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’.

Well, you can, and very often you must. There are many things in business – relationships, culture, innovative capacity – that are absolutely vital and yet cannot be measured in any meaningful way; at least, not without so much effort and expense that the result destroys value rather than creating it. And yet these ‘soft’ things absolutely have to be managed. They are the social side of the socio-technical system that every organisation has.

We like measurement because measurement seems to promise exact knowledge, and from exact knowledge comes certainty. But there are many things in business about which it is not possible to have exact knowledge. The most important of these is the future. No one can predict the future with confidence, no matter how good their mathematical models; the future is always uncertain.

As managers, we have to come to terms with uncertainty about the future, about other people, about ourselves and our organisations, and learn to live with it. The ability to accept and tolerate risk is one of the distinguishing features of a good manager. Bad ones turn away from things they cannot measure or understand, and retreat into the cave.

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Adi Gaskell commented on
Management Consultancy

Pradee commented on
Oh, no, not another book on management!

Laurie commented on
Another one bites the dust - reflecting on my new book on management failures