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The most important function of management, particularly executive management, is setting future direction. That implies decisions and choices about the present and future.

Because engineering thinking or more broadly speaking analytic thinking predominates in many executive and consulting circles, it is believed that decisions require a degree of rigorousness similar to that of the scientific method in natural sciences. And so, it is firmly believed that analytic tools empower managers to make sound decisions. The result is a myriad of tools reminiscent of engineering speak – frameworks, trade-spaces, matrices – packaged in neat Power Point slides.

This all very good, but, as philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers remarks  “tools are demanding – they do not confer the power of judging, they ask for the choice of the right tool for the right situation; in other words they oblige us to think and wonder”. The danger that Stengers cautions against is the rigid interpretation of the power of tools. Tool power should never be situated above human judgement. And when it does, this results in the tools getting a life of their own, and embedding the human element which is helpless to escape their hold. This ultimately results in a bureaucratic construct as the purpose of humans becomes not the seeking of meaning and validity, but rather the maintenance and upgrading of the tools. This also results in a proliferation of enforcer types at the expense of creative types, reducing the number and quality of choices about the future.

A more progressive view of management tools is as “enlightening abstractions, precious new tools for thinking” rather than “ready made instruments”. Also, in Stenger’s view, the relationship between user and tool is not one-directional; rather, “tools modify the ones who use them; to learn how to use a tool is to enter a new relation with reality, both an aesthetic and practical new relation”. In my experience, this dual directionality can also unfortunately work backwards: rigid tools can have a limiting effect on thinking.

Source of Isabelle Stengers quotations is “The Challenge of complexity: Unfolding the ethics of science – In Memoriam Ilya Prigogine

Also check out Dave Snowden’s related blog entry.