What is Management?

To manage is to affect the activity of a process and successful management achieves, to a degree, desired results. Knowledge of the process is not required -- initially, since management may be "trial and error" until one learns "what works" in certain situations. However, knowledge of the processes and conditions that affect them is a great benefit for effective management. Two factors create great difficulty for effective management: complexity of the system and delays between the managerial action and the appearance of the results.

If you poke a complex system, it responds. But if you poke it again and try to very carefully affect the system the same as before, you might get similar results at first, but it reveals results that you wouldn't have expected from the first results. If you poke it again and try very carefully to do it as before, again the early results may be similar but become unique. Effective predictability is limited to early results. To manage a complex system requires that a manager be able to detect early deviations from expectations quickly, and take actions to correct their undesired/unexpected trends. If one waits too long, the deviation increases, with increasing rate and diversity of unanticipated manifestations. This pattern may create an "overshoot" of the desired condition and sometimes an increasingly violent action-reaction cycle is set up. In electronic control systems terminology, there is positive feedback that causes increasing oscillations deviating from the average (desired) state. In a nutshell, the system becomes unmanageable unless an entirely new approach is taken.

Delayed responses after an action compound the difficulty of managing complex systems. If there is a delay in response, it often means that the response being monitored may not detect the changes or we fail to associate an outcome with the cause. This condition makes it much more difficult to empirically develop skill. This condition limits the ability to scientifically study a system so that the models are oversimplified. Such models are largely irrelevant for effective management. Our failure to effectively manage our impact on climate change is an example of how a delay in observable effects of our actions are difficult to associate with the results. Biological examples are chronic exposure to toxins that result in delayed loss of health, and how certain social inequities result, in retrospect over many decades, an identifiable "wave" of social effects that move through the generations.

The ecosystem is both complex and has delayed effects that are important. We normally only try to manage the features that have quick responses, but we usually have no clue about what else is happening in many processes functioning within the system. They seem to be unrelated to our actions. This means that our surprises are often drastic, and seemingly unsolvable. The speculations of "causes" are diverse, often controversial, and seldom have obvious beneficial options for managers. We try to adapt; we usually cope with the undesired effects and suffer the consequences. Often our children and grandchildren are the ones most affected by these delayed changes. Adjusting the system to yield what we wish is likely to require careful attention for longer than we will live. A present-day example is education that does not relate well with lifelong learning and social stability. Assuming a need for uniformity of approach ignores the diversity of interests and personalities and abilities in a population, but is easy to "sell" as a "solution" when people are not thinking critically and holistically. Both ecology and society are complex systems with time delays for effects of earlier management to appear.

We begin to recognize that "Acts of God" may be delayed results from acts of man! The "Wrath of God" may be a result of what man does to himself, and especially what happens to those in following generations. Historical examples in the United States include:

  • loss of topsoil, pelagic fish species from clearing forests in New England, Northwest US two centuries apart
  • loss of prairies from removal of bison and continuing losses from cattle managed without predators, and more damage from fencing grazing lands
  • loss of riparian vegetation from removal of wolves
  • loss of ...

We can manage relatively simple systems easily. We can manage complex systems if we are cautious, observant and skilled. We have not learned to manage complex systems with delayed effects!

Overconfidence is our greatest peril in natural resource management.

Last modified 01/19/05  


Obtain Permission. 
Last modified 11/25/2008