“Muddling Through” … it’s a proven technique!

The posh term for this is “disjointed incrementalism” which was first written about in 1959 by Charles E. Lindblom, currently Sterling Professor Emeritus in Economics & Political Science at Yale University, in his article The Science of “Muddling Through” 1 .  Lindblom looks at business approaches to policy-making and strategy. There is an aspiration towards a rational, comprehensive approach to decision-making. This approach first sees the desired goals defined and then identifies the necessary means to reach them. However, this method relies on comprehensive analysis taking every important, relevant factor into account. Lindblom argues that this approach has little to do with how policy-makers make decisions in real life… and it is at this point that we at Tomorrow The World – and perhaps you – start to recognise ourselves!

Lindblom writes that the contexts in which decisions need to be made are often complex, may include different or conflicting goals and may need to take into account the views of various stakeholders… that’ll be a ‘yes’ in our case.  This makes clarification of values and goals difficult but decisions still have to be made.

The comprehensive analysis approach requires “superhuman comprehensiveness” and is “greedy for facts”, the majority of which are not precise enough to even hope of making the best decision or avoiding all negative consequences. In contrast, by “muddling through”, decision-makers can find solace in the knowledge that “policy is not made once and for all”. No-one can know enough to predict all the consequences of a decision, whether good or bad. Lindblom describes the “wise policy-maker” as one who, in a complex world, expects their decisions to only partly achieve what is hoped for.  Some unexpected good and bad consequences should be anticipated but if a succession of incremental changes are put in place, where one step creates knowledge of the consequences of the next step, then decisions can avoid serious lasting mistakes.

So, all that was a bit deep for a coffee break, but hopefully it has given you confidence that, in our current hokey cokey world, “comparative analysis of incremental change” or, as we at Tomorrow The World like to call it, “baby steps”, is a well respected process.

1 Lindblom, C. E. (1959) ‘The science of “muddling through”’,  Public Administration Review, vol. 9 no. 2, pp. 79–88.