“One person should not give orders to another person, but both should agree to take their orders from the situation.”

Mark Parker Follett, 1925


“a class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.”

C. West Churchman, 1968 in Management Science on Horst Rittel’s ‘wicked problems’


If business were honest with itself, it would admit that most everyday decision-making careens between shambolic consensus (groups of people staring at dashboards hoping that a number will absolve them of accountability and make the decision for them all) and an individual who, hopefully, has the sense of the least of most damaging decisions. It is almost amazing more businesses do not crash and burn despite their reliance on data, KPIs and measurement. That said. The reason why they don’t is that there are thousands of these decisions being made very day and week and the mean of those decisions tend to course correct enough to find survival in the overarching decision-making shambles.

Which leads me to a discussion on situations, or, as Follet suggests: agreeing to take their orders from the situation. Let me begin by saying that ‘context is everything’ is just a lazy way to say “the law of the situation.

So lets talk about situations and the Law of the Situation in business.

About the Situation. Empty space does not tell us much. It is how space, and time, is used that tells us everything. I believe this is called ‘the structure of occupancy’, i.e., why is something there and not there. The reality is a situation is crammed full of information. They represent the space in between where people’s productivity, the system itself and new ideas create the feedback loop for progress and profitability. How well an organization works within a situation is actually an emergent property – the interactions of the people, technology, system dynamics and resources. This means the whole cannot be inferred from the parts or by adding up the parts or, if you try within a situation, the whole will be defined by that specific context and non-replicable <but can still offer some learnings>. There is some value in defining the whole by its parts within a situation simply because looking at the parts and the collective behavior and all interacting elements. Regardless. The study of a situation should not seek to control the parts, or even the whole, but rather discover the underlying patterns which make up the aspects of potential. This understanding leads to an ability to make the adaptability of components, and people, a priority because rather than simply having resources they become resources used well.

To assess a situation, one must be able to find the signals and properly sift through the weak and strong to assess probability scenarios from that situation. The key is detection – effective detection of the environment and environmental changes. This demands a style of thinking which ‘hits without aiming directly at something.’ What I mean by that is this type of thinking is less interested in declaring right and wrong or true or false statements, but instead are focused on knowing, knowledge and understanding. The acquisition of knowledge through detection is an active involvement in designing for any situation and demands active interest in the world/environment and not just on solving some specific problem. This is important because every situation is emergent in its properties and the thinking is emergent in its properties. In other words, it is a constantly evolving interaction between context, environment and situation and the Law of the Situation demands one ‘configure’ conceptually. Ponder.

About configuration. Developing a configuration takes some intellectual rigor, some data savviness, creativity, imagination and a good dose of pragmatism. At the same time, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that whatever configuration one, or a group, creates cannot be viewed as a prediction. In fact, about the only thing one can predict is that the future state will not be the configuration simply at best just like it. Sure. The outcome may look inevitable in hindsight, but within the situation itself, at best, it will simply be an approximation of the outcome. That said.

“Nothing is built in stone; all is built in sand. But we must build as if the sand were stone.”

Jorge Luis Borges

Once defined, each level, and function, of a configuration typically emerges (constantly) into a new form of functionality (unless rules or ‘top down’ management tamps it out) which creates new features to create positive consequences for the function and the form of the business itself. In other words, the best decisions iterate to accommodate the dynamics without losing the objective. Ponder.

Defining a configuration. Configurations are made up of cooperating data points. If ‘big data’ has taught us one thing, in a complexity dynamic world, it is that if you can find a reliable correlation it doesn’t really matter if there is a causal link. In other words, pattern seeking is often more important than causal discoveries. The patterns give decision makers clues as to what is emerging. This is important within a Law of Situation mindset because people inevitably seek causal things to solve rather than seeking patterns to ride or exploit. Just a reminder that it was Peter Drucker who said ‘solving problems simply returns a business to equilibrium’ so that seeking the causal, or problem solving, is actually counterproductive in terms of seeking to optimize emergent opportunities.

Now. Just because we can’t know everything in advance doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t gather what information that we do have to help us assess what might happen in the future, and plan and act on this basis. Planning and preparing are, if nothing else, helpful coping mechanisms to help us deal with uncertainty. Our troubles only occur when we apply near certainty to our scenarios and configurations instead of probabilities (while this may sound common sense, in the business world, this is anything but common sense in that certainty is where many businesses define their decision-making upon). On the other hand, just because you can’t know everything doesn’t mean that you can’t know anything. Nor just because we believe in complexity doesn’t mean we cannot accept some causality accountability. Of course, we should moderate any predictions let alone strict causalities, but we still need to act and make decisions. I believe it was Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, who suggested we use information from the past, i.e., concrete experiences, to get a ‘grip’ on the present. It may not be certainty, but it is enough for configuration and, eventually, designing action. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the choice isn’t binary, absolute certainty versus absolute uncertainty, but rather on a continuum between levels of confidence in probability. Regardless. If people in today’s business are addicted to anything it is concrete and patterns. They are two sides of the same coin. In a complex uncertain-strained world concrete looks like an oasis in the middle of a desert and patterns are paved roads in the middle of nowhere. Ponder.

Which leads me to reification or misplaced concreteness (Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, 1929).

Reification is when an abstract object or idea is treated as if it were concrete (materially real). It is a cognitive illusion wherein the mind plays tricks with you to make you distort the uncertain and make it seem certain.


Confusing the map with the territory – i.e. thinking as if the ideas baked into a theory, model, or story are more real than what they represent, such that reality, or one’s interpretation of reality, must bend to fit the map (as opposed to the other way around).

“A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.”

Alfred Korzybski

The myth of the given – i.e. believing that one’s perceptions of reality, which are in fact constructed subjective experiences, accurately represent objective reality.

The symbolic impulse – which treats abstract concepts as if they had the properties of concrete objects –  well-defined boundaries, durability, location, etc.

Anthropomorphism – attributing human properties such as emotion and intentionality to natural or social objects, processes, or structures, like the Universe is kind; Mother Nature is protecting herself; the government is greedy.

Psychological projections – when I assume that others must have the same beliefs or perceptions that I have

Source: Knowing and Unknowing Reality – Tom Murray

And then there are patterns.

Michael Shermer, “The Believing Brain” (2011), calls the cognitive tendency to find patterns regardless of whether they are real “patternicity.”

The mind’s sensemaking function discovers patterns primarily by matching incoming information to what is known and anticipated. This means accuracy, or truth, is less important than the pattern (i.e., we affix accuracy and truth to the pattern rather than have the patterns define reality and truth). This is different from default because the brain tricks us by actually doing some work – seeking patterns – all the while usually simply trying to confirm existing patterns rather than discover new patterns. We bend the incoming information to configure what we desire (or some version of a comfortable solution). I would be remiss if I didn’t point out complexity increases this behavior exponentially.

A last thought on Patterns. While patterns naturally emerge most common leadership guidance suggests a map needs to be offered to guide desired patterns. As Ralph Stacey suggests: “this turns out to be a poor guide to successful action: the whole idea that a map can be drawn in advance of an innovative (emergent) journey through turbulent times is a fantasy.” By definition, any emergent strategic direction will inevitably take the business into unmapped situations and environments. Any ‘map’ developed is built with some underlying assumptions of unforeseen dynamics which under the scrutiny of “the law of the situation” (decisions are subservient to the situation & context – Follett), end up only being derivatives of those assumptions (not the actual assumption itself) which actually increases situational inertia as people debate the assumptions rather than discuss the decisions to be made. Patterns are a reflection of learning in real time so it seems to make sense to learn about HOW your organization (and what learnings they tend to gravitate toward) and its people learn rather than map out some unknowable future. Ponder.

“Context is the appreciation that everything going forward is part of a complex adaptive system that is based on its unique dependency formed in the past. It is boundary and signal constrained. What is hard and difficult to determine, as I am just an observer right now in the live system, is; are we in a stable, negative feedback, control loop or are we in an unstable, positive feedback, transformational control loop, or a balance of both wresting for dominance. Does your signal matter? Context is everything. But everything is context; unless something makes a bigger noise.”

Tony Fish

Improving situational awareness. Ongoing learning creates is natural boundary. While this may sound counterintuitive, it is a positive version of an enabling constraint. While this is true of individuals it is even more so in groups or organization. This occurs because connections inevitably create reflection, some conflict and conversations which inspire discovery (which is the engine for progress) but are bounded by the group dynamics.

How? Behavior is constrained by group knowledge and shared views. The other positive aspect of this is that group learning is naturally asymmetrical which means the irregular aspects of ongoing learning actually enable dynamic thinking, and strategies, to accommodate shifts in the marketplace. I would note here that ongoing learning, while encouraging adventurous thinking, also has some coherence in that the core of an ongoing learning organization is self-directed toward service to ‘the idea’, objective or the vision (as long as the vision isn’t too vague). I would like to note here that I am not as opposed, like Ralph Stacey is, to having a vision as a north star coherence tool. However, I would agree with him that a vision does not diminish competing and conflicting ambitions within an organization while ‘an idea’ tends to create coherence even with that conflict. In addition, a vision can offer a close ended situation to all challenges versus encouraging open-ended thinking/innovation in service to ‘an idea’ (the latter offers a more viable path to greatest potential).

What this does mean though is how well one learns depends on how well they interact with each other, i.e., group dynamics. The group dynamics is a culmination of the interactions and dialogue between members of the group producing coherent behavior, beliefs and decisions – absent of any formal plans or hierarchy or control.  Today’s business lack of understanding of this dynamic is easily found in the general dependence upon long term plans and

…. typical plan ….

planning. What I mean by that is most typically a small group of people go off, develop some mission, some mission statement, maybe even some ‘purpose’, then hand it all to ‘people’ to carry them out. That is, simplistically, the law of the plan, not the law of the situation. Sure. The plans may be under the guise of some grander vision or mission or purpose, but they still make people implementers, not thinkers and do not encourage continuous improvement or learning. Just a reminder that Law of Situation learning is most useful in reflection, not in application. Ponder.

Which leads me to Managing a situation.  Situations demand multiple conversations connecting diverse skills and knowledge to define the emergent understanding. Notice I focus on the understanding because far too often we attempt to put together thinker/collaborators with a solution in mind. We shouldn’t. it is my belief almost anyone can design a solution once a situation is understood so the focus should be understanding the situation.

Now. Part of the situation definition issue is found in its vagueness or maybe that some of the outlines are blurry. What I mean by that is while things are obviously the effect of certain, or all, other things, doing something with those things, can only have a vague outline. This makes framing concepts, or how we take ‘the important stuff we should know’ and make it tangible, incredibly important. Framing’s most effective form is a concept which leads me back to the cooperating data points I mentioned earlier.

** note: I would note that the highest value in anything occurs when finding the optimal mix of cooperating variables/people/ideas/data.

Cooperating data points means people need to become better at assessing cues, patterns and probabilities. This means people need to embrace some aspects of black box thinking – just enough information and knowledge. As I noted in my piece on black box thinking, the key is ‘cooperating data points’. Cooperating data points is a term I made up. I made it up because I have seen far too many people pull random bits out of a black box, or some dashboard, and suggest these are the bits that we should use to inform our choice at hand. The random bits look good in isolation, but do not necessarily ‘cooperate’ with each other. Effective concepts do not rely on randomness, they rely on cooperation of knowledge, data and information.

Effective decision-making is borne of this cooperation.

This is important because we need to keep in mind that in a dynamic system <which is a typical business> the probability of any specific event occurring again is relatively small. Contextual variations make each event unique although they can have some resemblance to each other. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that ‘trial & error’ is effective as long as it is judged under a ‘progress’ or improvement criteria and not a ‘scalable’ criterion. Trial & error should be used to create experiences which feed into knowledge which can be applied in an analogous way, not a parallelism.

That said. We can learn from the past because even within a complexity framework there will always be existing constraints (some with more malleable outlines) so there are some pragmatic fundamentals that frame strategy probabilities.

Reminder, any strategy is only as good as:

(a) how it related to context/environment, and

(b) how well it can be implemented.

Everyone should note this is also true of any decision made within a situation.

“The game’s sealed when a player gives up having any strategy at all.

Kazuo Ishiguro

Which leads me to business sets the objective, but situations create the strategies.

I find there is a general confusion around what a strategy is and what it isn’t. A vision is where you want to go, a mission is what you want to achieve, a strategy details how you’ll get there, and tactics are how you’ll enact the strategy. They can overlap and reinforce one another, certainly, but these words – vision, mission, strategy, tactics – are not interchangeable.

** note:  some nice sources on strategy:

A Primer on Strategy. Good strategy bad strategy. Real strategies—good strategies—can be wrong. And we don’t want to be wrong.

Perils of Bad Strategy

“The wave of information threatens to obscure strategy, to drown out details and numbers, calculation and analysis, reaction and tactics. To have strong tactics we must have strong strategy on one side and accurate calculation on the other. Both require seeing onto the future.”

Gary Kasparov

I bring that up to discuss objectives versus maps. Objectives, more than a vision, tend to provide a directional compass so all the emergent aspects of applying a ‘law of situation’ doesn’t become a mishmash of incoherent activity. That said. Basing business success on a map, most typically based on a range of dubious assumptions, is a highly questionable path.

Plans. Plans are mostly a fantasy.

Parts. Parts are not meant to be measured as mutually exclusive of the whole.

Adopting a law of situation mindset, an acceptance of systems dynamics in action, makes one see business, and organizations, in a very different way. Instead of following past planning principles, which lean in on alignment (a version of control – ‘a line’), there becomes a self-created sense of emergence in which even individuals (and their brainpower) become less important than situations – people serve the situation rather than having a situation serve an individual or their interests.


That last sentence makes me want to say the idea that people’s interests and incentives have to be aligned with shareholder (external) interests may be one of the most destructive ideas in business. It is certainly destructive to the idea of the law of the situation. Incentives, generally speaking, of any kind are a gamification of behavior. The law of the situation eliminates gamification and makes the situation subservient to nothing but the context and environment that exists. The situation is less about the level of adoption to a particular theory and more about what aspects of a model can be adopted as part of the situational awareness and thinking. There is no ‘gaming’, simply thriving and the pursuit of meaningful progress. Yeah. That is an optimistic thought. I would argue that optimism in people can be realized into improved situational behavior and, consequently, improved decision making (pessimism is naturally reductive). I would also note that theories, conceptually, encourage reductionist thinking. Theories should, instead, be platforms for expansive thinking – true for situations also. What this means is that situations can never be elegantly modeled – in conceptual form or in executional design.

Which leads me to executional dexterity (execution from the Law of Situation).

Executional dexterity, whether it be assessing what scenario to consider, strategy to execute or executing against a strategy, needs the traction of effective situational awareness. To be clear. Accurate recognition, detection, of factors, cues and the assessment is hard work. No data or dashboard will give you answers – only inform.

Dexterity, or agility, will always only be as good as “the law of the situation’ effectiveness. Some people call this “agility setting.”  That said, there is often a gap between decisions and probabilities. What I mean by that is decisions line up based on scenarios, yet, either there is not enough data to inform some probabilistic thinking or decisions are simply made by consensus. In addition, we tend to align decisions linearly when in reality they get executed non-linearly (unevenly). This is mostly due to the fact organizations do not run at one pace.

Ultimately, as “Agility” points out, effective Law of Situation behavior comes down to the ability and willingness to make decisions and execute in stride. This demands effective situational awareness as well as coordinated pacing – structural (resources and culture) and transactional (edge cases and application uses). This could be called ‘understanding the flow of situations.’ Yes. Every business has a cadence. Even when edging toward chaos, or disorder, there is an organizational pace humming along at a low level. Getting pacing in sync is almost as important as ensuring the situation has been assessed properly.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that self-organizing is actually a naturally emergent type of control mechanism. The truth is that when a group informally coalesces it will naturally establish some boundaries – or control. It is self-imposed control rather than imposed control. Systems CAN have a life of their own and contrary to popular belief that life tends to desire to coexist with reality. Stacy calls this; ‘stable equilibrium.’ The law of the situation permits the organization, situation by situation, to create, invent, defend, and discover their destination as they progress. This demands some navigational principles, some guidance for ‘decision sight’, as a rolling roadmap of organizational existence chugs along. Ponder.

Which leads me to lack of helplessness.

The law of the situation discards the idea of helplessness. Complexity, or dynamic systems, when fully embraced can create a sense of helplessness. A sense of being powerless to external forces. The law of the situation does the opposite – “seize fate by the throat” (Ludwig van Beethoven). The truth is in any given situation you, or a small group of individuals, have the opportunity to impact the arc of external forces. Value then is no longer that of some external shareholder, or external interest, or even of some lifeless spreadsheet but rather the energy within, and released, of the situation itself. In the end, it is about creation versus destruction, optimism versus pessimism, and the fact that if facing each situation as one is not helpless to create something good, inevitably, people will be more likely to actually create something good. Ponder.


Two things – long term planning and agility.

First. Long term planning. Everything I have written does not encourage chaos, lack of focus or suggest long-term planning is not important.

It would be very easy for someone reading this to think I am espousing “live in the present” or “manage the short term because that is the only thing one can control” or even that some long-term planning or strategy is unimportant. I am not. Agility and adaptability are not done at the expense of long-term objectives. What I am suggesting is that a desire for stability has had a tendency to constrain exploiting emergent opportunities and put an emphasis on ‘solving problems keeping us from our plans.’ What I am describing flips the equation and puts an emphasis on optimism (we don’t always have problems to solve), emergence (things we could have never planned for) and creativity (innovation is meeting the needs of situations rather than ‘planned obsoletion’).

Second. Agility.

We learn all the time and I imagine my question is “why shouldn’t we be using that learning all the time? (rather than just at some designated time)”. Dynamic thinking, learning, application of that learning (situational strategizing) all can be done in a coherent way of meeting objectives is less a specific destination, but rather a systemic way of doing the business of doing business. This system type of thinking also challenges the belief that people need to be ‘gamed’ in order to be successful, i.e., specific objectives make people work better. Generally speaking, that is a myth and one could argue it is a self-fulfilling belief. If creativity and imagination is the future of business, than systems need to be designed which encourage it. I add that last thought because traditional long-term planning is, at its core, linear thinking. There is a pathway between doing nothing (no long-term objectives and planning) and doing the wrong thing (assuming you can predict a desired long term). It is within these two things in which I believe the Law of the Situation resides. It may not always look orderly but, as Stacey called it, it has aspects of ‘bordered instability’ in which effectiveness trumps efficiency without actually discarding efficiency. Success is found through accumulating patterns, recognition and acquisition of, and exploiting them in real time in creative thinking and agility AND clarity of desired objectives (which ensures coherence). There is no strategic control, only strategic coherence. More importantly, I am suggesting agility is not a feature, but an infrastructural imperative wherein the entire organization is responsible to contextual dynamics, efficient in doing so and effective in generating profits (or making meaningful progress against the business objective or intentions). That last point is important then the organizations that adopt agility adopt agility will invest in many capabilities that other organizations will struggle to see an ROI in. Law of Situation organizations realize these investments make situations expansive, not reductive, and create decisions from which future changes can be made faster and easier.

In the end. The Law of the Situation means building your business, your strategy, and your mindset, around agility rather than simply adopting agility as an enabler of a strategy. It suggests in a dynamic marketplace your ability to reconfigure to maximize situational awareness – short term and long term – is the business’s most valuable asset. It means the Law of the Situation is the path to meaningful progress.

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Written by Bruce