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Management by Muddling Through

September 1, 2009

I never sleep very well the night before teaching a case. New cases are particularly hard, but even well-worn cases can wake me up for the day at 4 AM.

Lecturing causes me no such problem. My sleep is sound.

The unsettling issue is one of control. Lecturing allows me to do two things that make my life comfortable. One is to pick material that aligns with my interests, experiences and graduate training. The second is that, relative to a case discussion, I have a much higher degree of control over the flow of the class. It is harder for a student to divert the conversation into an area which might have a great degree of practical importance, but in which my own knowledge is thin. Cases are wide open, messy, and the direction of class conversations can defy even my best attempts at prediction.

When I walk into a class in which I’m going to discuss the analytical technique conjoint analysis I  know that my knowledge of that particular technique is a hundred times better than anyone in the room. When I am going to lead a case where a manager is struggling with a large strategic issue for which there is no neat solution am far less sure of my knowledge.

Control is a warm blanket in the uncomfortable world of the teaching pit. 

Henry Mintzberg has blasted the top graduate business schools for being overly technique-focused at the expense of educating students to muddle through the ambiguity of complex business problems by drawing lessons from their own experiences.  Mintzberg is right, but these problems in business education persist not because of some deeply held belief on the part of the professoriate that management can be turned into a science. They persist because the alternative is hard for professors, expanded preparation time for classes and the occasional sleep-deprived night.

Recently, I had lunch with the CEO of one of the world’s leading civil engineering firms. This company has built some of the world’s most notable and known bridges and tunnels.  They were considering an executive education program at Darden for their top engineers who would be entering senior management positions. I asked the CEO if there was one skill set he wanted to see his people get out of the program. Without hesitation he replied, “dealing with ambiguous situations.”  “My people are smart. If the problem has a solution they will find it. If the problem does not have a solution they are a disaster….and it is killing us.”

They are coming to Darden. They’ll enjoy it, but they’ll find class uncomfortable —- as will I.

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One comment

  1. “My people are smart. If the problem has a solution they will find it. If the problem does not have a solution they are a disaster….and it is killing us.”

    This is a great quote, Ron. Any sense of whether the issue is one of inability to make a decision when there is no clear “answer”, or whether, when faced with ambiguous choices they choose poorly?

    Good to see your posts again!



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