Recently the Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, set out a ‘first sketch of a road map for reopening society’. Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon the First Minister of Scotland set out a route map and the Northern Ireland Executive announced a ‘pathway to recovery’. These spatial metaphors of maps, routes and pathways are common currency in organisational life, and sit comfortably within the ‘life as a journey’ cliché. They make intuitive and bodily sense because they are metaphors we live by, language which helps us make sense of the world and helps structure our actions. Map and journey metaphors can be so taken for granted and seem such common sense that the conceptual assumptions they cover over become hard to identify and articulate. After all, it’s obvious you can’t make a strategy unless you set a destination, and once people know the direction of travel then they’ll get on board the train/bus. Often it requires a visionary leader to see where we need to get to in so many months/years’ time.
Implicit in the metaphor are foresight and control, and the ability to recognise in advance what the destination is. Thinking/planning comes before action. It is a claim on both knowledge and authority, and conveys a degree of certainty that we can trust to the driver to take sequential action and be in charge of our journey. In the context of national politics in the time of crisis, then conveying some degree of certainty may be helpful: if we are going to get aboard Boris Johnson’s bus, then we need to have some confidence in his driving skills and ability to know the route. To a degree the job of all people in positions of authority is political and demands good judgement about when to be more certain and when to disclose not knowing. There are few occasions in an organisation where the authority figure can state candidly that they have little idea about what to do next.
However, in conditions of radical uncertainty, when we don’t know what we don’t know and are so blindsided by the unexpected then it becomes much harder to work out in advance what is the right course of action. To extend the metaphor, we are in unknown territory completely without a map, and what has happened to us has changed us as travellers. Where we wanted to get to yesterday may be different to where we want to get to today because who we are and what we value has changed.
In these circumstances the pragmatic insight that experiment, fallibilism and engagement with each other becomes particularly important. Whatever we need to do, we need to do it in a way that doesn’t separate means and ends. If we are to find a way to go on together, then careful consideration of a variety of points of view, taking in as large a sense of the competing goods as is possible in the time and circumstances, will be vital. This is likely to involve finding out what others are doing to cope with similar circumstances, but also working out what that means for us. It is likely to mean continuing to work out who the ‘us’ is, given that there are competing interests in any group. No one definitive view is likely to be enough to help us work out what is required, not ‘the science’, nor someone’s vision, not a roadmap. It requires both an experimental approach and an attentiveness to what the experiment tells us.
Philosophical pragmatism is not the same as just busking it, making it up as you go along. Nor is it an excuse not to plan when planning is required: there are likely to be occasions where what needs to be done is obvious, a bit like testing, tracing and isolating cases of Corona virus in the UK. A complex reality can nonetheless be made up of islands of firm ground that we recognise and can know how to proceed. Rather, it involves a systematic commitment to acting, listening and negotiating, and hard work and adaptability in the face of what our experiments with brute reality, and the lives of other people, tell us.
From a pragmatic point of view, what’s required when our previous experience is inadequate for the circumstances in which we find ourselves, then, is not so much a visionary leader who tells us our destination and sketches a route map to get there, but rather a process of engaging with each other. A rigorous, exhausting combination of acting, making meaning of our action with those whom our actions affect, paying attention to the consequences of what we’re doing, then acting again. It will mean making our differences explicit, rather than claiming that we are all in this together. There are likely to be winners and losers in any particular course of action, and the majority will need to recognise themselves in any suggestion of how to go on together. We can learn from other people’s experience, but we need to tailor what we learn to our particular circumstances and work out what it means for the variety of groups which make ‘us’ up. To find out what to do, we need to make the path in the walking, as the Spanish poet Antonio Machado observed:
Traveller, your footprints
Are the path and nothing more;
Traveller, there is no path,
The path is made by walking.
By walking the path is made
And when you look back
You’ll see a road
Never to be trodden again.
Working with roadmaps in uncertain timesTweet
Very good! I am teaching on this topic by discussing sensemaking as a way of ‘knowing’ as we go not before we go. I’ll quote you: “in conditions of radical uncertainty, when we don’t know what we don’t know and are so blindsided by the unexpected then it becomes much harder to work out in advance what is the right course of action”.