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Published: October 10, 2002

 
 

Best Business Books 2002: Management

From the High Ground to the Swamp

The late Donald Schon, a respected management academic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, once described the varied topography of business practice as comprising some high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. On the dry land, technically interesting management problems can be solved using the latest sophisticated techniques. In the swamp, practitioners grapple with messy, confusing problems, whose very nature defies any technical solution. Schon pointed out that, despite their technical interest, the high-ground problems are relatively unimportant to individuals and society at large. All the important issues lie in the bog.

In the early 1950s, almost all management advice was given from the high ground: It was assumed that the management scientists would soon drain the swamp! Over the years, however, as this hope has faded, more and more management writers have descended into the slough to help practitioners grapple with the so-called wicked problems that lurk there. The publication in 1982 of In Search of Excellence (Harper & Row) was an important catalyst in this process. Tom Peters and Bob Waterman attacked what they called “the rational model” — the view that management is, or ought to be, a logical process — for its inability to handle such problems. For these are the quandaries in which the choice between good and bad is never clear: More often the choice is between two “goods,” or, worse still, between two “bads.”

The complexity of these wicked problems has been underscored by the current mayhem in corporate America. How is it possible for corporations whose strategies were developed and approved by some of the best brains in business to suddenly collapse and for their great plans to be revealed as nothing more than wishful thinking? Why did outside auditors and boards of directors, who should have been the shareholders’ watchdogs, mysteriously morph into the management’s poodles? What is it about a bull market that compels us to interpret successful opportunism as rational strategy?

The answer: Twin logics appear to vie with each other in the minds of people and their organizations. The problem isn’t whether management should or should not be a rational activity; the problem is that there are two distinct, often competitive rationalities. There is the familiar, clear, task-based logic of the high ground — here business issues are, in principle, analyzable, and some conceptual frameworks produce better results than others. Then there is the murky logic of the swamp, where we are emotional, social creatures, not logic machines, who need the esteem and affection of others to function effectively and to maintain group solidarity. Since we don’t make sense of the world as lonely individuals — business is a community effort — we will often shape our worlds intellectually in ways that don’t square with the dispassionate, “objective,” logical view of the situation. Indeed, all the evidence suggests that the logic of relationships is primal and much more powerful than the logic of tasks.

The relationship between the two logics is rather like that between a map and a compass. A map is an instructive abstraction, provided it’s the right scale and identifies the features you’re interested in — shops, rivers, the contours of the land. Compasses, on the other hand, are useful in strange places — compasses don’t generate instructions, but they do give you a general sense of direction. When you are navigating on hard ground, strategic “maps” may be enormously helpful; landmarks are readily visible, and you may have a clear idea of your position. But maps will be of little help if you don’t know where you are. For example, they are useless in a swamp lacking landmarks. In a morass, one needs a sense of direction rather than instructions; a compass rather than a map. In the management field, this is what leadership is all about — supplying a sense of direction.

 
 
 
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