To Muddle Or Not to Muddle?
That is the question, brought front and center by the June 23 Brexit vote.
When I started working on THE GRAY RHINO, I came down firmly in the Not to Muddle camp. I had been watching European policy makers talking a lot, and endlessly debating austerity vs growth, but seemingly making little, if any, progress on Greece's debt problems. But as I was writing the book, I softened my views, concluding that in some cases, it's okay to muddle.
Some of this was the result of reading psychologist Dan Ariely's reflections on the nurses who tended his burn wounds after a serious accident. They believed that it made more sense to rip off the bandages in one swift motion in order to minimize total pain. As a patient who disagreed, he later carried out research with other patients on whether they preferred gradual or all-at-once bandage removal; the conclude that gradual was better.
I also took to heart research showing how important it was to make changes in the right order. If a country didn't have rule of law in place, for example, then many economic reforms would fail. And then there were Greece and the European Union. The need for closer economic, financial, and political integration was obvious, but so were the difficult political dynamics that stood in the way.
When the solutions are clear but the motivations of key stakeholders are not, and the sense of urgency is not there, muddling may be the only option. Smart muddlers, however, have a plan. First, they work on putting the prerequisites in place. Second, they make sure they have a strong diagnosis and treatment plan, and make sure that it's in the hands of decision makers. Third, they work on creating a sense of urgency, whether by engaging stakeholders or acting quickly on changing circumstances.
In the wake of Great Britain's vote to leave the European Union, it's clear that the window for muddling in Europe and in Greece has become much smaller. Brexit has created a sense of urgency, one might say panic, that will help leaders make tough decisions and act instead of keeping muddling along.