STORY INLINE POST
A large part of my professional activity in the past 15 years can be summarized as coordinating a talented group of innovation managers. I used to think of us as a team of problem-solvers. That is, in any given situation, internal or external, our team takes action, analyzes the problem and designs alternative solutions to finally choose the most suitable one and carry it out. I believe that managers and executives see themselves that way. The human resources manager solves the issues of hiring, monitoring and training the talent of the company. Similarly, the production manager deals with the daily problems that arise on the production line and is responsible for solving them.
Seven years ago, while I was recovering from an appendectomy, a friend and mentor shared a great book with me, Thinking in Systems, by Donella H. Meadows. The author quotes a great phrase from Russell Ackoff: "Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.”
Being a confessed workaholic, the week I spent in recovery was quite hard to handle but this quote felt like a comforting hug. I knew that someone had perfectly described what we “problem-solvers” actually do. Managing messes does not have to do with the lack of capacity or talent of the person in charge. It is a blatant recognition of the complexity of real-life situations. It is important to acknowledge that complexity is not synonymous with difficulty or complication. Complex system analysis recognizes that the whole behaves differently from the sum of its parts. In other words, emergent properties are generated by the interaction of the parts, and the result of that interaction is transformed into a new thing with a particular behavior (a new mess).
When I arrived at the emergency room with a mild set of symptoms that didn’t exactly resemble appendicitis, it was the skill of my diagnostician who insisted on apparently unnecessary tests and discovered an unusual presentation of the malady. The surgeon, trusting my diagnostician, was able to handle the mess with a major intervention (instead of the traditional laparoscopy). The risk of complications due to general anesthesia was higher but was way better than the risk of sepsis in case of an accidental rupture. The surgery was a success and I was able to leave the hospital a couple of days later.
Surprisingly, in the middle of my recovery, my wound got infected, so another mess arose. Again, both physicians had to assess it. This time, I had to be part of the risk analysis. They could keep me in the hospital for several days, administering antibiotics and special care or they could leave the cleaning and caring to me and let me resume my normal activities. We decided to leave the caring to me.
This proved to be the best course of action as here I am, alive and kicking. However, my family thought that my physicians had poorly managed my case. And to be honest, as I am writing it down, I think I understand why. What my relatives don’t know is that my diagnostician has been my primary caregiver for the past 20 years. He not only knows my medical history, he also knows ME. To round things up, my surgeon has collaborated for more than 30 years with my diagnostician, so he trusts him and his knowledge of ME. The decision-making we all engaged in involved three different types of knowledge: explicit, tacit, and practical wisdom.
In their latest book, The Wise Company: How Companies Create Continuous Innovation, Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi describe the importance of recognizing those three types of knowledge to drive successful companies in the face of change. They describe how companies create new products and new business models that benefit employees, consumers, and society. The secret is a relentless self-renewal process where companies focus on the future they envision, rather than only responding to changes in the environment. Nonaka and Takeuchi confirm that while knowledge-creating companies focusing on tacit and explicit knowledge generate innovation, they cannot sustain it on a continuous basis without having practical wisdom about human interactions and how they influence organizational practices.
In the same way that doctors face a disease, managers face a mess. They see the symptoms, identify possible causes, perform additional tests to help them find alternative solutions and finally, execute a risk analysis to arrive at the best possible option. The health of a patient or an institution depends on the skill, intelligence, experience, and practical wisdom of its physicians, the former, or its managers, the latter.