Metalogue 1: “Why do things get in a muddle?”


In this first, simple, metalogue (written in 1948) Gregory Bateson imagines a conversation between a daughter and her father.

“Why,” the daughter wants to know, “do things get in a muddle?”

They discuss this from various points of view and realise that ‘tidy’ means different things to different people. But the ultimate reason that things get in a muddle is simply because there are more ways for things to be in a muddle than there are for them to be tidy.

This tells us something about the essence of what management is and why — and how leadership differs from management.

What Bateson Tells Us

A daughter asks her father, “Daddy, why do things get in a muddle?” After all “people spend a lot of time tidying things, but they never seem to spend time muddling them.”

They discuss this and realise that things generally don’t get in a muddle when people leave them alone: they only get in a muddle when people touch them, usually other people.

Then they ask themselves what ‘muddled’ means. They realise that it means, “I can’t find things.”

So although everyone would agree when things are in a muddle, and the opposite of ‘muddled’ would appear to be ‘tidy’, people have different ways of finding things so ‘tidy’ means different things to different people. (This is why the father doesn’t like it when other people ‘tidy’ his desk.)

Tidy means that everything is in the place where it belongs. And not only in the right place, but also positioned correctly, not crooked or haphazard.

They realise that “there are more ways which you can call ‘untidy’ than there are ways which you can call ‘tidy’.” There are many more ways that a cup of sand and sugar can be all mixed up together than there are ways for all the sugar to be on top with all the sand underneath (or vice-versa). There are many more ways for the letters of the alphabet to be mixed up together than there are ways for six letters to be picked out to spell DONALD. And this is why, if you saw a movie of a box containing letters being shaken about and six of the letters suddenly came together to spell the word ‘DONALD’ you would know that the movie was running backwards. (“All of science is hooked up with this reason,” Bateson tells us, and in science it is called ‘entropy.)

The reason that things get in a muddle is that there are “millions and millions” of ways of positioning letters, or grains of sand and sugar, that we would call a ‘muddle’, and only a very few ways that we would call ‘tidy’.

Implications for Business:

Although deceptively simple, this metalogue tells us something very important and deep about the nature of management and leadership. Something that is especially relevant during times of change.

Any business is made up of many thousands if not millions of different things, the activities we perform each day.

For the business to succeed, these actions all have to come together in the right way — they have to be carried out at the right time, at the right cost and price, to deliver the right service to the customer in the right way. The activities of the business have to be kept ‘tidy’, and not allowed to get ‘muddled’:

If the activities are kept ‘tidy’ then the business makes a profit. If the activities become ‘muddled’ then the business makes a loss. And there are many more ways for the business to be muddled than there are ways for it to be tidy.

Keeping the business ‘tidy’ in this way is the role of management. This is about making sure everything happens in the right way at the right time for the right cost. Everything has to be in roughly the right place, not too crooked or haphazard. And when something unexpected happens, as often happens during a time of change, it is the role of management to get things ‘tidy’ again as quickly as possible.

Different managers will have different ways to keep their businesses ‘tidy’. These will be more (or less) suitable for different sets of circumstances. Software and IT systems also keep the business tidy, as do processes, policies, and procedures. All businesses need some form of mechanism to keep their activities ‘tidy’ in this way. Without them, the business is bound to become ‘muddled’ as different people revert to their own definitions of what tidy means.

Leadership is different.

As the world changes over time, new technologies change what is possible, competitors and suppliers develop new services that change the definitions of what ‘tidy’ can look like, and customers develop new definitions of what ‘tidy’ means to them.

The role of leadership is to get people to develop and adopt new definitions of ‘tidy’ for the business: definitions that employees, customers and suppliers can all agree on. It is about convincing people to let go of their old definitions of ‘tidy’ and adopt new shared meanings. It is about keeping some of the old definitions of tidy running at the same time as the new ones are developed: deciding which forms of ‘tidy’ to keep (for now) and which ones to let go, when.

In a time when so much around us is changing and churning, this simple question “Why do things get in a muddle?” brings to the essence of management and leadership:

— Management is about keeping the business tidy
— Leadership is about enabling things and actions to become muddled (but not too muddled), so that better definitions of tidy can be developed. And leadership is about then convincing others to adopt these new definitions of tidy together.

Photo By Twentyfour Students via

2 Replies to “Metalogue 1: “Why do things get in a muddle?””

  1. I do not agree with several of the statements above.
    The point of the metalogue is that when Bateson and his daughter discuss why things get in a muddle, they get in a muddle. This is why it’s called a “meta” logue. The discussion represents communication at the meta or connotative level.
    Second, the role of leadership is to demonstrate to others how to navigate through a project when things become muddled, For example, a leader demonstrates how to keep a project within scope when users continually want to add new requirements which impact the project’s schedule and budget. Leaders don’t create muddles. However, their leadership actions teach and “empower” their staff to solve and resolve muddles as they appear.

    • Hi Tony,
      Thanks for your comment.
      I agree with you on your first two points: Bateson and his daughter do get in a muddle. And then, having had the courage to get into that muddle, they are able to come out the other side with a clearer understanding. So I agree, the ‘metalogue’ shows as well as tells.
      I’ve been trying to understand what you think is different between us on your third point.
      – You say “the role of leadership is to demonstrate to others how to navigate through a project when things become muddled” [when user requirements change, for example].
      – The post says, “The role of leadership is to get people to develop and adopt new definitions of ‘tidy’ for the business [when things become muddled]” — new definitions that can be agreed on by employees, customers and suppliers [and shareholders].

      Ah… I think you’re picking up on “Leadership is about enabling things and actions to become muddled (but not too muddled), so that better definitions of tidy can be developed” — this, surely, is exactly what Bateson and his daughter did? They enabled and allowed things to become muddled, but not too muddled, so that a deeper truth and more resilient understanding could emerge?

      To me we’re saying the same thing. And so is Bateson. Muddle happens when things change. Management tries to keep things the same. Leadership says “Muddle is ok, it happens” and then enables as many stakeholders as possible to find a new definition of ‘unmuddled’.

      Do please let me know if you’re meaning something else and I have misunderstood.

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