The Power of “Muddling Through” Your Complex Problems

Sharon Muniz
November 7, 2020
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The Power of “Muddling Through” Your Complex Problems

In the middle of the 20th century, a Yale University professor named Charles Lindblom published an article comparing the way that public administrators made decisions to a different – and potentially better – way: incrementalism.

According to incrementalism, you should make decisions through a process called successive limited comparison.

Translation: A series of small comparisons, one after the other.

Most of the time, with incrementalism, you’ll compare things that aren’t all that different: branches of the same tree, as opposed to options in another forest.

(This is very different from the incredibly complex analyses that political scientists often use to tackle big questions.)

Small incremental steps

That’s all. Take a step. Make a small comparison about your new surroundings.

Based on that information, take another step.

(And so on, and so on.)

This exclusionary mode of decision-making is a bit limited in scope. But, Lindblom argued, that’s kind of the point. When you’re solving problems, you’re already in an overwhelming headspace. Forcing yourself to make manageable decisions based on little information makes your next step clear.

And, with incrementalism, that next step is all you need.

Do snap judgments really work? 

Lindblom published his idea in 1959. Now, famous writers like Malcom Gladwell (in his book on first impressions, Blink) are working through similar theories. Surprisingly, we’re better at “thinking without thinking” than we may…think.

One Tufts University professor even noted that “Thinking about the judgments you’re making could make you less accurate.”

Enter: The surprisingly solid strategy of ‘muddling through’.

What does this look like in business? Here’s what you need to know.

  1. Go with your gut. Gladwell and Lindblom, among others, did a lot of research that basically points to one idea: Your intuition and powers of quick decision-making are better than you think. When you’re attacking a problem, pay attention to how you feel about your strategy.
  2. Be flexible (and observant). When you start a project, how often do you take the time to come up with an Ironclad Battle Plan, from which you will not deviate, no matter what? Don’t do that. Things change. You’ll need to adapt. Make a loose plan, focus on making the most informed first step you can, and then look around. Update your plan. And keep doing THAT.
  3. Don’t get overwhelmed. Central to the idea of ‘muddling through’ a complex problem or project is trusting that Future You will be able to handle future problems and decisions. In incrementalism, you very specifically make an informed plan now and then adjust your course later based on updated information. Don’t try to look into the future. Don’t try to imagine a bunch of what-if scenarios. Just take your best step now – and continue to muddle through.

Muddling through a complex process in this way can result in more success – because you’ll constantly be reacting to the newest information. It can also reduce strain on yourself and your team, because you’ll always be honed on just the next thing.

Is it uncomfortable? Certainly. But – here’s a secret: There’s a good chance you’ll always feel slightly like you’re wandering around, muddling through, or learning about new circumstances. Getting really, really good at doing just that is the BEST thing you can do for you and your business.


About the Author

Sharon Muniz

Sharon Muniz established her software development consulting firm in Reston, VA after 15 years of working in the software industry. NCN Technology helps clients implement best practices and software to drive their business to success. Ms. Muniz is skilled at strategic planning, business process management, technology evaluation, project and agile software development methodologies.

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