Managing a mess

Managing a Mess


I’ve been absent without leave from this blog for a while now (sorry about that), in the thick of an ending academic year, a few major project proposals, and the rather intensive self-analysis required of my tenure dossier (now done and out for external review, woot). But as I participate in the Americans for the Arts conference, I wanted to post a new favorite quote I uncovered while trying to clarify my ‘teaching philosophy’ for the tenure narrative. Says Russell Ackoff in 1979:

Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are abstractions extracted from messes by analysis…. Managers do not solve problems; they manage messes.

The quote, and the tenure deep-dive process, reconfirmed for me that while arts and cultural managers do, indeed, solve problems every day, in brilliant and resourceful ways, they can’t just solve problems. In fact, they could solve every individual problem in individual ways and still be in a mess, as Ackoff says: “Because messes are systems of problems, the sum of the optimal solutions to each component problem taken separately is not an optimal solution to the mess.”

You can never ‘fix’ a mess, you can only manage it. And because the problems within it are so interrelated, the nature of the mess is changing all the time — both because of external forces, and because of the consequences of your problem-solving.

Some may find that depressing. I find it to be a relief, as it helps me understand the role and life of an arts manager, and the task I have in teaching them to manage messes with grace and humility.

[ If you want the full text of Ackoff’s brilliant article, and if you have JSTOR access, you can find it here. ]


  1. says

    As I am now an active artistic administrator, and no longer just in grad school talking about messes “in theory”, I can’t tell you how spot on this assessment is. And, quite a breath of fresh air too!

  2. Heather says

    I encountered a similar concept in a book on biology that I was reading recently: you can’t control a living system, you can only disturb it. Messes and living systems have a lot in common in their complexity. And I have enjoyed thinking of my work as ‘disturbing’ the system, as most days I don’t feel like I’m fixing or managing. Also, I have to remind myself that I’m simultaneously being disturbed by the system, since I’m a part of it…which has helped me re-frame my sense of how I engage with my work.

  3. Clare says

    I like your resolution to ‘grace and humility’! Actually, in an arts context, maybe we need to have a very complex system/mess, or else there wouldn’t be a dynamic that could support and get the best from a mass of creative individuals?