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Discovering management
Discovering management

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1.2.2 The art of managing

In management as in other fields, ‘art’ has a twofold meaning. It may mean intuitive judgement and skill, the feeling for phenomena and for action that I have called knowing-in-practice. But it may also designate a manager’s reflection, in a context of action, on phenomena which are perceived as incongruent with intuitive understandings.

Managers do reflect-in-action. Sometimes, when reflection is triggered by uncertainty, the manager says, in effect, ‘This is puzzling; how can I understand it?’ Sometimes, when a sense of opportunity provokes reflection, the manager asks, ‘What can I make of this?’ And sometimes, when managers are surprised by the success of their own intuitive knowing, they ask themselves, ‘What have I really been doing?’

Whatever the triggering condition, a manager’s reflection-in-action is fundamentally similar to reflection-in-action in other professional fields. It consists in on-the-spot surfacing, criticising, restructuring, and testing of intuitive understanding of experienced phenomena; often, it takes the form of a reflective conversation with the situation. A manager’s reflection-in-action also has special features of its own. A manager’s professional life is wholly concerned with an organisation which is both the stage for his or her activity and the object of his or her inquiry. Hence, the phenomena on which a manager reflects-in-action are the phenomena of organisational life. Organisations are repositories of cumulatively built-up knowledge: principles and maxims of practice, images of mission and identity, facts about the task environment, techniques of operation, and stories of past experience which serve as exemplars for future action. When a manager reflects-in-action, he or she draws on this stock of organisational knowledge, adapting it to some present instance. The manager also functions as an agent of organisational learning, extending or restructuring, in the present inquiry, the stock of knowledge which will be available for future inquiry.

Finally, managers live in an organisational system which may promote or inhibit reflection-in-action. Organisational structures are more or less adaptable to new findings, more or less resistant to new tasks. The behavioural world of the organisation, the characteristic pattern of interpersonal relations, is more or less open to reciprocal reflection-in-action – to the surfacing of negative information, the working out of conflicting views, and the public airing of organisational dilemmas. Insofar as organisational structure and behavioural world condition organisational inquiry, they make up what I will call the ‘learning system’ of the organisation. The scope and direction of a manager’s reflection-in-action are strongly influenced, and may be severely limited, by the learning system of the organisation in which they practice.

These distinctively organisational aspects of a manager’s reflection-in-action must enter into any good description of the art of managing.

Feedback on Activity 1

Click below for feedback on Task A and Task B.


This activity opens up a crucial dialogue around the role of theory in relation to the practice of management. There are, of course, no right answers to the various questions that have arisen from these two sections. This feedback steps back from the specific detail and surfaces some underlying themes. Hopefully these will have been reflected in your own thoughts.

  • Management ideas are continually evolving and are fiercely debated.
  • Management practice is contentious, with deep-rooted differences in thinking, values, approaches and assumptions.
  • The challenge for practising managers is to be able to make sense of situations by drawing appropriately on different traditions, recognising that they do not necessarily fit neatly together.
  • The imperatives of managing may be pragmatic, but, to be effective, that pragmatism needs to be informed by a working and up-to-date knowledge of wider management debates and ideas.
  • Schön points to one of the central and unavoidable tensions at the heart of management. On the one hand, management is conducted as something rational and scientific; on the other hand, the realities of management often involve managers acting and making decisions on the basis of hunches, being creative and ‘thinking out of the box’.
  • Neither purely rational or purely creative approaches are tenable; managers should avoid defending their intuitions, beliefs and creative instincts as ‘rational’, but also accept that human and complex management situations can’t be reduced to bounded problems solvable by wholly rational solutions.
  • Even the vast range of models and frameworks used routinely by managers are not necessarily formulae that will work without fail in all situations.