Metalogue 1: “Why do things get in a muddle?”

If we want to develop new levels of thinking, as the Victorians had to develop new levels of understanding before they could tackle cholera, then there is no better place to start than Gregory Bateson.

Bateson was an “anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician and cyberneticist whose work intersected that of many other fields.”

In other words, he worked from many different viewpoints to gain a deeper understanding of how the world operates.

His book Steps to an Ecology of Mind is a good place to meet him. It contains essays and lectures from across his career, laid out step by step, one step at a time.

It begins with a series of ‘metalogues’ — thought exercises in the form of conversations between a father and his daughter.

We start with the first, which is titled “Why do things get in a muddle?

A daughter asks her father, “Daddy, why do things get in a muddle?”

The father explores with her what she means, and they come to realise that things do not get in a muddle when people leave them alone. They only get in a muddle when (other) people touch them.

The opposite of ‘muddled’ seems to be ‘tidy’. But they realise that although everyone would agree when things are in a muddle, ‘tidy’ means different things to different people — which is precisely why the father doesn’t like anyone to ‘tidy’ his desk.

Then they think about the example of a cup with a layer of sand in the bottom and a layer of sugar on top. If this is defined as ‘tidy’ then we can see that if the cup were shaken even slightly, then it would be very difficult to get all of the sugar back on top and the sand underneath. “All of science is hooked up with that”, the father explains. And this explains how you can tell when a movie is running backwards, or forwards.

Finally they realise that the reason things get in a muddle is simply that there is a huge number of ways for things to be in a muddle, but only a very small number of ways for things to be ‘tidy’.

For businesses, this metalogue highlights a key roles of managers, which often goes unnoticed: to keep things in order. To ‘manage’ them. The activities of any business are bound to become ‘muddled’ over time, simply because there are more ways for them to be ‘muddled’ than to be ‘tidy’. There are more ways for a company to go out of business than there are for it to remain successful. The first job of management is to correct this. To keep the business ‘tidy’.

The second role for leaders is to create a shared understanding of what ‘tidy’ means for their business. ‘Tidy’ means different things to different people, so leaders have to define the shared the company culture. “The way we do things around here.”

Third, the definition of what constitutes ‘tidy’ is always changing over time. The business operates in a changing marketplace and good leaders need to monitor this: how customer needs are changing; what new technologies are emerging; what key resources are becoming abundant, scarce or expensive; what levels of financial risk and return are becoming desirable. They not only have to monitor these things, but also to decide how to change and when.

When they do so they need to remember that everybody will have become used to their own definition of ‘tidy’. Communication at this point will be especially important, as leaders have to explain clearly the new definitions of ‘tidy’. Why these new working methods are needed; why the old levels of customer service have to be dropped and these new ones introduced; why these products, services, job codes, locations, have to be changed. All these will be part of someone’s definition of ‘tidy’.

Ok, so this may not be rocket science. But it is the first step on a long and deep journey, it was written in 1948, and it explains simply the the fundamental driver behind entropy and four key elements of leadership: management, culture, strategic change, and communication. All based on one simple question: “Daddy,  why do things get in a muddle?”

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