The Surprising Power of "Muddling Through"
When you're starting a law firm, or indeed any business or venture, there seems to be an inherent expectation that you must execute a "grand master plan" in order to achieve success. In many ways, this mindset fuels how we develop business plans or try to attract investors. We're expected to have a fully-formed "five-year plan," predict our earnings over the next months and years, and so on, and all the rest.
While grand plans are good (and yes, you should have a business plan), a look at reality tells us most of our day-to-day decisions are not made in this way. When you're in the trenches of running a law firm, your decisions are based on what's in front of you at the moment—what seems to be working, what isn't working, etc. We refer to this approach almost in a negative way: "muddling through."
And yet, some experts believe there is real virtue in "muddling through"—and some even tout the benefits of this approach when formulating public policy. The Texas Politics Project, for example, cites Charles Lindblom's 1959 article, "The Science of Muddling Through" as a guide toward policymaking. Many policymakers still recommend the "rational-comprehensive" approach—developing a full plan of action by stating objectives, analyzing all alternatives, and creating a strategy based on the data. However, bureaucracies tend to move more slowly via the "successive limited comparison" approach—focusing on a few small policy changes at a time based on what is and is not working at the ground level. This second approach is equivalent to "muddling through," and while it may make people impatient, Lindblom argues that it is a more responsive and practical approach to problem-solving.
What works in public policy also works from a business standpoint. While there's certainly an advantage to having an overarching vision and mission statement and a "master plan," most people don't refer to their master plan when making day-to-day decisions. They look at what's in front of them and make practical decisions accordingly. And much of the time, those small, practical adjustments prove more effective in moving the business forward than by looking at every problem through the 10,000-foot lens. This, in effect, is the power of "muddling through."
In these days of uncertainty, with a pandemic still raging around us, the concept of "muddling through" has taken on an even greater value—because for many business owners, including law firms, it's all they have at the moment. The coronavirus crisis has been a "black swan" event that has upended the grand plans of thousands of businesses around the country, both large and small. We have had to adapt quickly to changing circumstances no one could have anticipated, and to this day, no one really knows how or when things will return to normal. If you feel your own plans have been upended as a practicing lawyer, don't chide yourself over your need to "muddle through." Embrace it, because it may be just the thing that gets