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Management by crisis

By Brian Holden - posted Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Has modern management a terminal illness?

Why do projects take so long, develop ever-greater complexity, yet so often fail to achieve any significant results? Why have our expectations for success diminished to the point that often the best we can hope for is staying power to endure the disruptive forces that appear unpredictably in the organisations where we work?

So asks American management guru Margaret Wheatley. Edward de Bono who has dedicated his life to teaching the science of thinking makes a similar observation:


The complexity of the modern world is outrunning management. Few problems are ever solved. They are temporarily subdued or given up on.

Management in the public sector is management by crisis. Problems are dealt with as they surface as if they were spot fires. The solution of one problem mostly creates another - or else a problem re-emerges after last year’s root cause analysis declared it to be solved. And, when there is no light at the end of the tunnel, those at the top see only one solution - reorganise! The same parts are then moved around at great expense in the hope that a solution will magically pop out.

Wheatley’s belief is that the core problem is that we take the approach of a mechanic to a car. We isolate a component from the system so that we can fix it. But, by isolating a component in a dynamic organisation, we are removing it from its relationships - and the problem is often in a relationship which immediately disappears in the breakdown analysis.

Wheatley in her book Leadership and the New Science looked at what science was saying about relationships. The man-in-the-street is becoming aware of the words “relationship” and “equilibrium” in the scientific sense. He knows;

  • that there are deep ecological relationships and that to make a correction over here (for example by using an insecticide) can lead to an unforeseen adverse effect over there because nature has zillions of interacting components; and
  • that climate change demonstrates that the natural world is composed of systems which exist within other systems and which all come together to strike a natural balance - if left uninterfered with.

Wheatley says that the job in front of us now is to bring this holistic awareness into organisations. De Bono in his book I am right. You are wrong also calls for an holistic approach:


We feel comfortable when dealing with absolutes rather than relatives, while ignoring the fact that an absolute must be independent of circumstances - which it can never be.

Science is the study of relationships - and science is awesomely successful

Biological feedback is what biological relationships are all about. The most impressive example occurs in the developing embryo where cells appear to “talk” to each other as if in a telephone network. As the organs develop each system "knows" its place within the whole organism.

Self-regulating systems as occur in living cells allow for spontaneous corrections. The pressure to introduce increasing control in an organisation works in the opposite direction. Spontaneous creativity is killed, and excessive control by insecure management is the killer. Lateral thinking is not permitted - especially where an increasing demand for the service is putting a heavy pressure on resources.

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About the Author

Brian Holden has been retired since 1988. He advises that if you can keep physically and mentally active, retirement can be the best time of your life.

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