Scribblings from the Garret

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Welcome to my blog, the launching of my new website, and the pre-launch publicity for my forthcoming book, The New Ecology of Leadership: Business Mastery in a Chaotic World.

In his January/February article in Foreign Affairs, The Future of History: Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class? Francis Fukuyama points out the lack of left-wing, populist mobilization in response to the global financial crisis of 2008 and attributes it to a failure in the realm of ideas. There is no “progressive counternarrative” to the neoclassical economic doctrines of the libertarian right that have led Anglo-Saxon capitalism so meekly to deindustrialization, the threat of a “Great Stagnation” and the destruction of the middle class. “Imagine, for a moment,” he writes, “an obscure scribbler today in a garret somewhere trying to outline an ideology of the future that could provide a realistic path toward a world with healthy middle-class societies and robust democracies. What would that ideology look like?” He then goes on to suggest that it would have to reassert the dominance of democratic politics over economics and the ending of powerful interest groups’ domination of politics. It would not be a denunciation of capitalism, but a critique of the variety of capitalism being used and a new vision for the role of government in helping societies change.

Well I am a scribbler in a garret, trying to become rather less obscure. I am not left-wing but what I call “radical middle.” My focus is several organizational levels below Fukuyama’s; on the level of the firm. Here I am trying to come up with a new mental model for managers to help them hone their judgment and develop their practical wisdom. But the ecological perspective that I have developed is fractal; that is, it can be applied at many levels and I firmly believe that political science is the next discipline where it might find a home. In the meantime this blog will explain, defend and develop the ecological model and argue why it should find a home in the field with which I am most familiar – the practice and theory of management.

For the past fifty years or so management has aspired to become a science in the mold of physics. The closest example of a social science it could find in the late 1950s was neoclassical economics. Management science has shared with economics the assumption that managers (and individuals in general) are rational in the logical sense of the word and that if they aren’t, then they ought to be. Management practice in this view is all about the application of logical, context-free “principles” to business situations. Because the principles were context-free, it was thought that one size should fit all. Perhaps the best example of this was management science’s approach to decision making. Would-be decision-makers were advised to gather all the facts, consider all the options, and then go through a logical process applying decision- making criteria (like return-on-investment calculations) to reach a conclusion. Ideally, it was thought, the workings of decision-makers’ minds should resemble those of Dr. Spock from Star Trek; pure logic, no emotion.

The fact that the workings of the minds of actual managers seemed to resemble those of Homer Simpson, rather than Dr. Spock, simply added grist to the management scientists’ mills. “Imagine!” they thought to themselves, “how much we could improve businesses and profitability if managers would only follow our advice.” The past fifty years has seen a long retreat from that view, although few in the management science community are likely to admit it. It turned out that the scientific approach to decision-making was easily described but impossible to practice. There was never enough time, information was difficult to get and one’s options did not exists objectively “out there”, but depended on how one framed a problem. Evidence started to accumulate from many sources – anthropology, behavioral economics, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and so on – that our minds had not evolved to be “rational”, at least in the logical sense of the word. If they were rational, then they were “ecologically” rational. That is, they had developed to make fast, “good enough” decisions by extracting cues to action from the contexts in which they found themselves.

My ecological model is based on the assumption that people are rational in this ecological way. That is, we have evolved to extract cues to action from the situations in which we find ourselves. So contexts matter and what look like context-free principles are really desirable outcomes – the truisms that abound in management books. I will be blogging about all aspect of the ecological perspective and at times will stray from the field of management to discuss politics, economics and other hot-button issues. With a Presidential Election about to get under way in the United States it promises to be a fun time! Welcome to a narrative of the future!

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