The Choice: Two Roads or Promises?


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
Robert Frost

At times, we can reduce the challenges in leading organisations to a greeting card: There are two paths in management, a traditional one and now a better one. Pick the wrong one and your organisation will fail. The reality of modern leadership is more complex.

However, the glorification of the ‘road less travelled by’ is not the meaning of Frost’s poem. ‘The road less travelled by’ is hardly an appealing option for managers who must make decisions every moment of every day about how to lead their organisations and respond to the challenges before them. “The road less travelled by” is usually a road out of the organisation.

Frost’s subtle poem reminds us that many choices are obscure and evenly balanced when made. That obscurity is rarely resolved. We are left to define ourselves by the choices we have made and see the outcomes as results when the connection between choice and outcome is often remarkably complex.

Two Roads

Faced with the challenges of a rapidly changing networked economy many managers choose the path of efficiency. In a time of crisis, they redouble their efforts to deliver certainty, control and secrecy. Seeing threats in a digital economy these manager seek to take greater control and shore up the traditional defences that seem to offer certainty. Rather than deal with complexity, it is easy to declare a new simplicity.

Others are increasingly experimenting with experimentation, autonomy and transparency. They are seeking to create new forms of organisation from responsiveness and adaptation. However, as the use of new models increases there are real challenges to be resolved and new cultures and practices to be built.  It is a brave middle manager who chooses to introduce this approach into an existing organisation of any size. At times, the Responsive Organisation can feel more discussed than delivered.

Some times the two approaches are mixed and we don’t even realise. Our traditional ways can be so deeply ingrained that we can’t see the irony of ordering autonomy and experimentation. For a manager considering how to respond to a situation in the moment, considering new ways of working can seem like a luxury. After all, wasn’t the point of all our experience and training to give us tacit knowledge on which to rely when things get challenging?

Not Simple, Complex

Managers don’t struggle with organisation and choice in the simple or even the complicated domains of choices.  In these cases, traditional approaches work with some predictable degree of success. Recommending a responsive strategy in these examples is as wasteful as managers embedded in traditional management mindsets would see it.

However, the challenge of the modern organisation is rarely bringing complexity to simple choice. Bureaucracy may make simple management choices feel complex to implement, but the choice remains straightforward. The challenge for organisations is pretending there are simple choices when the domain becomes increasingly complex.

Complex choices are where we need learning, experimentation and new ways of working. This is the where we need to sense and respond. This is the domain in which managers see the networks around us change the nature of our traditional considerations.

Promises to keep

The nature of the complex environment in which we operate as managers is that we rarely know in advance what path will be the best choice. This can be a tough pitch to sell to your executive committee.  Worse as Roger L Martin has argued even a ultimately superseded business model may be successful long enough to make you look stupid.

We are trained as managers to define our journeys by their outcomes, just like the narrator of Frost’s Two Roads poem. This consequentialist logic is often used to justify the triumph of abstract organisational goals over personal, human or community outcomes in the process.

Perhaps instead we should define our journeys by the path.  Focusing on the process of walking the path changes our questions:

  • What management path values our personal purpose and delivers the greatest personal rewards?
  • What management path values the potential of others and seeks to maximise that potential?
  • What management path delivers on the promise to customers and the community inherent in our organisation and its people?
  • What management path maximises the net positive impact and contribution from all in the organisation?

Asking new questions is an act of leadership. The answers to these questions will help define better ways of working and new models of social leadership that can carry us through the management journeys ahead.

When we cannot know the journey’s destination, perhaps the better challenge is to walk the road well. We can run our organisations to deliver better answers to these questions.  A first step is freeing our people to contribute to their potential to these answers. We may yet find that all our roads lead to the same place, but we will arrive in better shape as managers, organisations, communities and as a planet, if we do so.

This reflection brings to mind another equally beautiful Robert Frost poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”.  As we go forward into the dark and cold challenges ahead, this reflection challenges us as managers to consider the miles to go and the promises we must keep:

He gives his harness bells a shake 
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, 
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
– Robert Frost

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