The Management Uncertainty Principle

We’ve seen how physicists have discovered the limitations on their ability to attain precise and comprehensive knowledge about the characteristics of an object at a given moment in time. How certain, in the face of this from physics, are we in our own field that we can even identify precisely the vital components of management – or, even more implausibly, of individual leadership – much less take them on in our own persons or teach others to do so? If the physicists are having such a hard time with what most of us would acknowledge are at least legitimately testable scientific models and material, how reasonable is it for us in so soft a field as management and leadership to assert our certainty in these regards?

As it happens, there are researchers who adopt something very much like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle with respect to management. Perhaps the best known of them is Henry Mintzberg, who argues in his most recent book, Management (see review here), that there is so wide a range of factors impinging on what effective management actually winds up looking like – across industries, levels of management, business structure, geographic location, social and corporate culture, not to mention individual personality – that it is really unhelpful to insist on reducing it to a specific list of features or characteristics. Rather, he argues, it should be formulated and developed into specific practice according to an assessment of what he calls the three planes of information, action, and people.

Sounds rather mystical doesn’t it? But the interesting thing is that when you analyze the demands of your work on the basis of the information necessary and available, the actions you and others must take to advance it, and the qualities, abilities, and even locations of the people with whom you collaborate in so doing, it begins to make a lot of sense that the result for each of us in our varied circumstances would fall quite variously across a broader range of possibilities than the gurus, surely, would allow. Indeed, we become more certain about the veracity of our specific solutions, just as we become more doubtful about the more popular generalizations.

So, perhaps there is something to be said for uncertainty, after all. If we are willing to acknowledge its inherent influence in the world of work, we may wind up developing a personally more precise and effective appreciation of how it influences the form of effective management from where we stand at any given time and place. What’s more, we might be better prepared to more effectively develop anew that appreciation when our personal times and places change.

Today’s tip: Speaking of professors, we all know that they have generally a bias to the left – that is at last widely acknowledged. But there remains some controversy as to why that should be. Perhaps we’ve been asking the wrong questions about it from the outset. Please see this NYT piece for an intriguing explanation.

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