Muddling through

December 6, 2022

Muddling through…..which is not the same as being in a muddle or muddled thinking. This is the language of Chris Rodgers in his interesting book The Wiggly World of Organization.

His position is that the world in general and organisations in particular are full of complexity and uncertainty and that managers/leaders can’t ‘control’ such environments. Instead, thoughtfully and with purpose, they have to do the best they can. Rodgers quotes Allenby & Sarewitz’s (2013) summary of what managers actually do:

Progress, when it occurs, comes through trial and error, through learning what works in particularly situations, through incremental change that incorporates such learning, and through the difficult process of political compromised that allows people to take the next step. (101)

I responded positively to Rodgers’ ideas because that’s both my life experience as a manager/leader and what I’ve written about in The A to Z of Arts Management. Yes, there are theories about management and the best of them contribute insights into how one might try to be a good manager but they can never offer ‘rules’ about every situation. There’s never one simple answer. You have to bring insight and experience and thoughtfulness into play. As Rodgers says about the concept of muddling through:

….this doesn’t mean managers and others relying wholly on instinct. Though that plays a vital part. Nor is it about indecisiveness. Instead, it’s about adopting a stance of flexible rigidity; remaining steadfast in pursuit of the broad direction of travel (for as long as it continues to make sense to do so) and, at the same time, being flexible and responsive to the practical realities of whatever emergers along the way. (108)

It’s about doing the best you can with, in Rodgers’s words, purpose, courage and skill. It’s about having a sense of direction and encouraging people to bring their skills to play as they join you on the journey. You can’t get anywhere as a manager without the active and effective participation of those who work for you.

You need to be brave because you can’t control the future. Afterall, apart from Emily St John Mandel (2014), who else factored Covid into their strategic plan? You have to keep moving forward without being able to predict the outcome of your decisions. And you have to apply your skills – as a communicator, a negotiator, a thought provoker, a healer – in an ethical and practical way.


Allenby, B & Sarewitz D 2013, The Techno-Human Condition, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Mandel, ESJ 2014, Station Eleven, Picador, London

Rodgers, C 2021 The wiggly world of organisation: muddling through with purpose, courage and skill, Routledge, London