What a Mess

More than any comic-strip character, Dilbert has come to represent what it’s like to work in the modern office. But in terms of running an organization, maybe Pig-Pen is more illustrative.

After all, as Jody Greenstone Miller, the co-founder and chief executive of Business Talent Group, explained in a “Corner Office” interview with the New York Times on Sunday, managing an enterprise is inherently messy.

Image credit: Robert S. Donovan

When you look at other businesses, you think, ‘Wow, they’ve got it together,’” said Miller (who—full disclosure—sits on the board of the Drucker Institute). “Then, as you get more sophisticated, you realize that everything’s messy, and that even the most successful businesses are always reinventing and are never stable for very long. It’s not that the emperor has no clothes, but the emperor has a lot less clothes than you realize.”

So true. As Peter Drucker liked to warn, if you’re feeling like you’ve cracked the code on what makes your business work, you’re at risk of complacency. On the other hand, if you’re constantly wrestling with tough fundamental questions like “What is our business?” then you’re probably undergoing beneficial suffering.

Management aims to reduce mess, but even the best managers can only do so much for so long. That’s one reason Drucker found fault with certain management gurus, who made “managing sound incredibly easy.” In reality, Drucker wrote, “the one thing that can be guaranteed in any kind of operation is the daily crisis.”

Top executives in large organizations face a particular challenge in this regard: By the time an issue reaches them, the messiness has often been stripped out. “Every problem that comes to the top must be grossly oversimplified,” Drucker warned in The New Society. “It must be made capable of a fast ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ But actual problems are never so simple and never so clear-cut.”

How have you seen messiness manifest itself even at the most successful organizations?