Leading from the Middle" promotes a democratic, empowered organization, based on my leadership experiences and on research. The best work places empower staff to achieve their full potential; the less command and control, the better the product and service.
Library Journal review: “highly recommended”. Book List: “great reading…”
This blog augments my book with weekly notes. In 2011 I was a Fulbrighter and taught in Latvia, Croatia and Lithuania. In 2013 I was a Visiting Professor at the University of Latvia teaching an 8-week class on the Democratic Workplace.
I'm on the Fulbright Specialist Roster to teach about management and democratic organization concepts.

Friday Fable. Lubans’ Bee in Love.

Posted by jlubans on July 31, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Bee and the love of his life.

Long ago, when animals and plants could talk, a busy but weary bee landed on an especially bright yellow flower. The flower was ambrosial, enough for the bee to say to the flower; “Whoa, I want more of this!”
So, already drowsy from the day’s work, he took a rest on the yellow blossom. As he snoozed the flower whispered to him and said she hoped he would stay. The bee took a deep breath – inhaling the flower’s scent, wiggled his tail, and settled in where he was, his wings still, only his antenna moving now and then as he listened to the flower and they spoke of bee and flower things.
No shirker, the bee still did his daily share of work for the beehive working long hours collecting nectar. But, in the late afternoon – in a vertical free fall after a loop de loop - he’d return to his love, the yellow flower. Those first few summer’s days of bliss turned into many. But, soon the days shortened, the sun hid behind rain clouds. Then, the first signs of frost soon appeared, but still the flower and the bee visited each day. And then, with a wintry wind, it ended. Whenever you see a yellow flower with a black center, think of the bee’s and flower’s reciprocated love.

Sometimes following one’s heart is the only path.

And, so it can be at work. Instead of diligently and predictably going up the ladder, we might choose another path. Instead of pursuing proffered laurels, we stay in a job, doing what we love with little fame or fanfare but great satisfaction and personal achievement.

© John Lubans 2015

Weird at Work

Posted by jlubans on July 28, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Maestro of weird.

“Weird is good”, says Suzi McAlpine, a leadership coach, in a recent article. Her subtitle: “Why dissonance fosters innovation”.
She proposes that instead of rejecting that which strikes us as weird, we try to understand its meaning and why it effects us the way it does. That acceptance and reflection may result in indirect solutions to problems or inspire us to move in another direction, away from the same old, same old way of doing something.
She provides an example, “The Rite of Spring” ballet. When first performed, it was so upsetting, so weird, that half the Paris audience threw vegetables at the orchestra and shoved and punched those who disagreed with their opinion. Figuratively, I see something similar occurring whenever an organization of people confronts radical change. The Rite was different yes, and only a few – if any - knew they were part of a wrenching separation from the past to the modern. “(For) many who saw it on that balmy evening a century ago, it was nothing short of scandalous.” A hundred years later, at the anniversary performance in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées - the same theater in which it was first performed - one critic anticipated the audience will “convene to celebrate ‘one of the great aesthetic monuments of Western art — completely assured, startlingly original, brutal, tender, and altogether wonderful.’"
Well, ever the contrarian, I have to ask what’s happened to make this audience more accepting of what was “weird” a century ago; how did this audience move from denial and refusal to being demure and appreciative? Or, is the audience – we - any better now in dealing with change? Or does change so different, so weird, require a century before it is seen as something other than "puerile barbarity"?
I doubt that Ms. McAlpine is suggesting that simply courting weirdness is an “open Sesame” to a new way of looking at things. Some weird is best ignored – the bare chested man in the city park with the snake coiled around his neck is just what he is – there’s little there to inspire creativity, more likely creepiness.
Now that’s not what I would say about the depicted Salvador Dali’s art. While Dali exploited shock and awe as effectively as any artist in his lifetime, his genuine art did change our perspective, and I would suggest in a largely positive way. McAlpine’s point I think is that we need to be sensitive as to why we are repelled by the weird and try to move past the initial response – like the knee jerk violence of those music fans at the first performance of The Rite – to a greater understanding and appreciation for what is happening and why. The challenge is knowing when to accept and reflect since some weird is just weird, just like some radical change ideas are delusional. A metric I use is whether the outcome from a revised perspective will result – in organizational speak – in better customer service and greater productivity. Doing something so that the staff feels better about their jobs – with no tangible improvement - is not worth doing.
Some readers might say I am no stranger to weird. Yes, I am happy to go with the eccentric any day vs. staying in the safety zone, in the comfort zone. Leaving the safety zone, accepting the unknown, has often resulted in highly positive results.
Most of my essays, training workshops, and teaching incorporate the “strange”. That can backfire, as one dis-satisfied participant in a Texas team-building workshop let me have it with both barrels. I had the group do something with balloons and several in the group were not following the rules, but no one, including me (deliberately), was calling the unethical behavior. The disgruntled participant upbraided me later and demanded why I did nothing about the cheating. She signed herself a “Tall Texan.” No doubt she saw me as little more than a “burbling pixie”* since I failed in her eyes to repair years of dysfunction in this organization in my 7 hour workshop. What she saw was weird to her. More weird to me was her not calling what she saw as chronic cheating, not only in the workshop, but, as she explained to me, throughout the organization. A little reflection on her part might have resulted (from this weird little game) in the organization’s first-time-ever honest discussion about its ethics.
I rely on experiential learning to explain and augment leadership, management, and teamwork concepts. I am among a very few teachers of management in library schools to use experiential activities. Certainly, many use team projects but I know of no one else who uses group activities, at least not to the extent I do.
I’ve culled and adapted my problem-solving adventure “initiatives” from the many “new games” created dating from the 60s: Egg Drop, Bibliofoon (now Book Chain), Mirage, Pyramid, and Frenzied Fun and Facts.
Each of these activities can be done and discussed inside 30 - 40 minutes. (A note of caution: these require space and movement. And these activities are often “strange”, even weird, in a university culture that is hard-wired for lectures and textbooks under a highly formal relationship between student and professor.)
The value is to be found in the “debrief” following each activity; that’s where we overcome the “weird”. Step by step we look at the activity and what happened; then we explore “What I learned about myself and the group during the activity”; and, finally I try to get answers to this question: “What will I use/apply personally from what I did and saw?” As these types of teaching/learning experiences are new and fun (and weird for a few like the Tall Texan), it is important to emphasize the learnings, to allow students time to think, reflect, and discuss what has been learned. That’s how the weird becomes less off-putting and more familiar so that personal lessons can be learned.

*A denigrating appellation assigned to P. G. Wodehouse, by an un-amused critic of “serious” literature. Wodehouse, perhaps the greatest humorist writer of the 20th Century, used the “burbling pixie” to good effect in contrasting the two genres and ridiculing the critic’s pettiness.

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE CAT AND THE BIRDS”*

Posted by jlubans on July 24, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption. Aesop Losing It. By Alex Gregory, New Yorker, January 3, 2005.

“A Cat heard that the Birds in an aviary were ailing. So he got himself up as a doctor, and, taking with him a set of the instruments proper to his profession, presented himself at the door, and inquired after the health of the Birds. ‘We shall do very well,’ they replied, without letting him in, ‘when we've seen the last of you.’"

“A villain may disguise himself, but he will not deceive the wise.”

We all have them, those terrible, no good, very bad days. Even the ever-patient Aesop, ever ready to find deep meaning in the most humble of events, sometimes gets fed up and flips his lid (and finger).
Regaining his composure, Aesop has these birds outwitting the cat. They’re too savvy for Mr. Puss and bid him a less than fond farewell. And, so it can be in the workplace wherein we should be wisely vigilant for the bilker, the bamboozler, the puller of fast ones, and the flimflammer.

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Caption: A Consulting Cat. Illustration by Arthur Rackham, ca. 1912.

*Source: AESOP'S FABLES A NEW TRANSLATION BY V. S. VERNON JONES WITH AN INTRODUCTION By G. K. CHESTERTON AND ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARTHUR RACKHAM (Publisher: London: W. Heinemann; New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1912). Available at Gutenberg.



© John Lubans 2015

The World’s Information Desk (part two)

Posted by jlubans on July 21, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Go, Duck, Go! (Competitor to Google, DuckDuckGo.)

After a week of cogitation, since the publication of part one
I am ready to do some futuring. Like the Oracle at Delphi, a bit groggy from the noxious effluvium (see this article about the Oracle’s cave), but with more than a little temerity (no one’s surprised, right?), I am primed to offer up two forecasts about information and the Internet. And, I will conclude with some thoughts on the importance of leading from the middle during times of urgent change.
Now, most prognosticators play it safe and time their predictions to occur after their death date. You can imagine them all circled up as a futurist choir, grinning and plucking harps in the “singularity” or “Cloud”, thinking naught but of lofty matters, predictions long forgotten.
Mine is a much shorter view, one that may come back and bite me. These two trends, I predict, will grow and strengthen in the next two to three years, maybe less.
Search Engine Darwinism. Google is the Tyrannosaurus Rex of search. It has held first place in search since the late 90s and enjoys most recently a 45% separation from #2, Yahoo powered by Bing. Competition has been weak, but a sleeker and leaner model is on the horizon: DuckDuckGo. Plus it offers no tracking of individual searches, something which Google does with a vengeance and by which it generates beaucoup bucks.
Almost as good as “being banned in Boston,” DuckDuckGo is off limits in China, because it refuses to track users. That “bad boy” badge should give it an extra boost in its battle for search market share in the free world.
I hope this little start up can give Google a run for its money and a serious kick in the pants. Regardless, I think search engines will experience marginal growth and there will be more links to commercial sites. In other words more ads and more tracking, more targeted ads and more annoyance. It is not healthy for Google or for us for them to enjoy what is nearly a monopoly on search. Anyone with a single provider cable service knows well how a monopoly can behave toward the customer when it puts profit above all. However, monopolistic behavior is not limited to the corporate world; a not-for-profit agency can go off the rails just as easily once it knows and accepts that there are no consequences for anti-consumer behavior.
The antidote to this kind of behavior is competition or a leader who will not tolerate arrogance, bad behavior or poor service. Capitalism was never meant to be free of competition; it thrives on it, it dies without out, making socialism’s “inefficiencies” all that more tolerable.

The End of “Free”. Much of what the Internet runs on is free. One of the most frequent go to sites is the Wikipedia. Its business model is based on volunteers donating time and expertise. That’s fine if one has a day job, much less so than when unemployed. How long can this type of business model continue?
Of course, there is no such thing as a free web site or blog. Someone is paying for it.
“No one,” according to Dr. Samuel Johnson, “but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” Well, in that case “never have so many (blockheads) written so much (for free) to be read by so few (for free).”
Then again, my blog while "free" is not written for “free”; it is linked to my teaching and selling my current book and a future book or two and my keeping current with trends in my area of expertise.
I am not alone in this. There are better examples than mine, ones of high quality and excellent scholarship; for example, the ones edited by Laura Gibbs, a professor at the University of Oklahoma.
When revenue is required to keep a site going, one option is to put up a pay wall. Doing so may drive away the most loyal readers, but I do believe the pay wall is already a trend and will increasingly reduce access to relevant information, ideas and opinion. Unless you are willing to register and pay, we will see reduction in free access beyond a few “free” items each month.
These restrictions will limit search effectiveness (unless you have a pass through the pay wall.) So, the World’s Information Desk (the Internet as facilitated by Google) will produce fewer relevant results and other venues may become more attractive, including library help desks.

Finally a brief word on the importance of leading from the middle. I cannot remember a time (from 1995 to today) when there has been a more urgent need for staff, especially star followers, to take part in an organization’s decision-making and innovation. Those libraries (and other organizations) that have made gains during these tumultuous time have only done so because of effective followers thinking independently and taking action. Staff generated ideas have been far superior to those ideas coming down from on high with minimal discussion among the people doing the work. A certain kind of follower has been most effective during this time: those with personality, curiosity, heightened adaptiveness, and an unsurpassed technical expertise, all of which has led to excellent collaboration with users/customers.
The leader with the ability to “let go” and to work with staff ideas creates a leadership that gets things done and improves services and productivity. In some ways, that is a third trend. Perhaps it is not as visible, but at some point some will stop and reflect and draw conclusions about why some organizations did well and others only so-so.

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Fisherman and His Nets”*

Posted by jlubans on July 17, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Illustration by John V. Lord.

“A FISHERMAN, engaged in his calling, made a very successful cast and captured a great haul of fish. He managed by a skillful handling of his net to retain all the large fish and to draw them to the shore; but he could not prevent the smaller fish from falling back through the meshes of the net into the sea.”

For so brief a fable, it's a puzzler. Is it about the failings of the net – a design issue - or is it about “big fish” vs. “little fish”? About the wisdom of staying small and un-noticed vs. becoming large and prominent to the “fisherman”? The former lives for another day while the latter dies.
What is the “net”? Something to be avoided; certainly when entrapped, it’s largely over. Or is the “net” destiny and impossible to avoid?
One could conclude that not speaking up in the workplace is a smart career strategy. A. Lincoln’s humorous words come to mind, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” (Alas, those are words I should have heeded more often than I did.)
Yet, Mr. Lincoln spoke out, freeing the enslaved, (at a great cost). Should he instead have remained silent and let things work themselves out?
Sometimes, try as we might to remain a small fish, to go un-noticed, we have to choose between what we believe is right or wrong.

*Source: FABLES By Aesop Translated by George Fyler Townsend (probably from this edition): “Three hundred and fifty Aesop’s fables”. Chicago, Belford, Clarke & Co., 1886.
Available at the Gutenberg Project.

© John Lubans 2015

The World’s Information Desk (Part one)

Posted by jlubans on July 14, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: An early, now just ASK, Google competitor.

Back in 2000, Google’s co-founder, Sergy Brin had some lofty aspirations: “In five years I hope (search engines) will be able to return answers, not just documents.” “… Google will be your interface to all the world’s knowledge – not just web pages.”
Among the hallmarks of a good leader is the ability to read visible trends and to share a vision with followers. Looking back from today, Mr. Brin does appear, by one measure*, to have attained about 75% of his target to become the World’s Information Desk.
Why am I writing about this? One reason is to consider just how long organizations take to change, even when action is urgently needed. I was among a few in my field of work in the late 90s to declare that the Internet was changing us irrevocably. My field was academic libraries, large research libraries. At the time we were still pretty smug about our dominant role in information provision. After all, for many years libraries were the only show in town. Often, we held a region’s unique copy of a book - only accessible through our card catalog - and if you needed help even with simple informational questions you came to or phoned the library. Librarians were genuine intermediaries or gatekeepers. An even more literal image comes from the days of closed stacks, a library staff member either approved or denied you physical access to the books.
With the introduction of e-resources libraries began to lose their monopoly on information.
Preceded by the World Wide Web experimentation of Mosaic, Yahoo and Google soon made information (and sometimes, answers) readily available to anyone with an Internet connection. One student observed back in 1998, “(The Internet’s) moved library resources to my desktop.”
So, how did libraries respond to this erosion of what was clearly the bread and butter of their business?
Well, we return to leadership or non-leadership. A colleague told me: “It seems like all we did (at her library) was to re-act to whatever came our way.” My colleague was yearning for action, not reaction.
Leaders are presumed to have a vision for their enterprise. Actions are to flow from that vision. The best leaders are blessed with an inner compass, a sense of true north, which guides them through uncertainty. I have met a few visionary leaders who demonstrate this capacity. When confronted with a situation needing resolution, they do not delay. Convinced, they act. A few might be accused of foolhardy haste, but at least they are taking action not standing on the sidelines. They step into the fray without waiting to be asked, without seeking permission, or being prodded. If their efforts stumble and fail, they and their organizations learn and are better for the experience.
So, how did leaders respond? Initially there was denial. As I said earlier I was one of a few who observed that the long lines at the reference desk were no more. Even though there had to be fewer questions along with less demand for our services, we continued to staff the desk as if nothing had changed. When I did a simple calculation showing that the costs in answering those decreasing questions were now increasing, that still did not garner much support.
Or, maybe our denial was attributable to simply not knowing what to do, either at the service level or in the executive suite. In any case, I got the feeling back then that this was a taboo topic, only to be aired at some personal risk.
Apparently, it no longer is a taboo. Perhaps the dark clouds have passed and beams of sunshine play upon calm waters and bluebirds of happiness again flutter in the book stacks. A recent report suggests that our denial was of several years duration. While I observed voluminous drop offs as early as 1992, some libraries were still claiming their reference desks were unaffected by the user’s new found independence, “The top five (research libraries in 1995) handled over 500,000 questions each.” The writer appears to share my incredulity: “I’m sure in those early days there were some interesting approaches to collecting the data as well as different interpretations of a reference query.”
Let’s be clear again. I am not hyperbolizing the Internet’s role in information finding and using. It’s swell, up to a point. But, to test googling’s limits, type in a complex question. Unless you intend to always keep life simple, you will not get instant answers to your questions. There’s an avuncular bit of advice passed on by bright college seniors to college freshmen: “befriend a librarian.” That’s still a very good idea whether you are on or off campus. If libraries have lost the bread and butter piece of their business, they still have the main course – the meaty part. That’s the ability to help users navigate and find answers to complex questions.

Part 2 of this essay will be on how and why some library organizations and leaders successfully came to terms with and reduced resistance to Internet-wrought change.

*If in 1995 research libraries answered 20 million questions vs. 5 million in 2014, the difference might be ascribed to independent information seeking and finding outside of the library.

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Abstemius' (Sir Roger L'Estrange) “An Old Man resolv'd to give over Whoring”*

Posted by jlubans on July 10, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: London's support for a beleaguered Greece.

“There was an Old Tost**, that in the very State of Impotence, had still a Whore in the Head of him. His Ghostly Father took Notice of it, and Ply'd him Hard with Wholesome Advice, upon the Subject of the Lusts of the Flesh. This Reverend Fornicator thank'd him most Heartily for his Kind and Christian Councel, and the Grace of Heaven, says he, I'll Follow it; For to tell ye the Plain Truth on't, I am told that 'tis Naught for me; and really, my Body is quite out of Tune for Those Gambols.”

“When Things are at the Worst they'd Mend.”

Apropos, no, for our Greek brethren? In my work experience as long as there remained enough in the till to keep an old system tottering along, nothing would change. And, as the graphic suggests, there was always a chorus of vested interests to keep the status quo. Such was the invariable case in the absence of good leadership. Only an effective leader - with a clear and shared vision for a better life - was capable of rallying enough effective followers and their support to bring about essential change. Instead, what I saw and continue to see in many agencies is that opportunities for internal change are squandered. And, only when the opportunity to decide for one’s self is removed, does change occur, mandated from outside. Of course, the “Old Tost’s” being “out of Tune for Those Gambols” improves his hearing the advice to “Mend”. Bankruptcy may well put Greece “out of Tune” - all options exhausted - and lead to mandated change, unfortunately not of their choosing. A sad moment for the birthplace of democracy.

*Source: Abstemius' Fables translated by Sir Roger L'Estrange.

**Tost, probably derived from Tosspot, a drunkard.

© John Lubans 2015

“I trust no one”

Posted by jlubans on July 07, 2015  •  Leave comment (2)

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Caption: Still from Cicermanis’ film; yet another invasion survived!

A reviewer of a proposed book* in which I have a chapter had two questions for me. Paraphrased, the first question is one Latvians, when abroad, often hear, “Where or what is Latvia?” And the second deals with how my seemingly “non-specific” teaching approach in my class, the Democratic Workplace, relates to teaching specific democratic concepts in Latvia. As I thought about it, it seemed like my response would make a good essay. Emended, here are my answers to the two questions:
First, Latvia, a democratic nation since 1991, and a member of the European Union and NATO since 2004, has endured centuries of external rule, of imposed government. These impositions began in 1201 with the introduction of Christianity to the Baltic pagans by Bishop Albert. A brief cartoon film* by Janis Cicermanis, “Latvietis” simplistically but effectively sums up many Latvians’ shared worldview. A farmer sits outside his thatch roof farmhouse playing on his kokle, a type of zither. Clouds darken the skies as wave after wave of invaders and despots disturb his idyllic world of farming, beer brewing, bee keeping, music making, and simple living. Outsiders, from benign as Luther to murderous as Hitler and Stalin, force themselves into this farmer’s little world. While the three Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) have their own unique cultures and languages – including art, literature, and music – others have long been determined to move in and tell the Balts what to do and how to do it. In spite of these blatant assimilation efforts - most recently by the Communist Soviet Union from 1944-1991 (the darkly termed, “Soviet Times”) - the Baltics’ culture survives, ever-the-while under threat of yet another imposition. Currently, it is feared by many that Putin’s Russia will once again claim the Baltics. A majority of Latvia’s large post-WWII Russian-speaking population identify as Russian-Latvians with no desire for Russian rule. My conclusion is based on a decade’s worth of personal observations and friendships in Latvia, recent news stories, and survey reports. However, any excuse may do for Mr. Putin. He has declared a Monroe doctrine type fatwa protecting the “rights” of Russian speakers the world over!
Unlikely as it may seem, the fear is real (think Ukraine) and dredges up for many Latvians the horrors and humiliations of Soviet Times – of coercive rule and the loss of freedom, of a deliberate “Russification”, of KGB interrogation and torture and disappearances into Siberia. When I teach the Democratic Workplace, I do so within a not-so-distant totalitarian context** and its consequent behaviors: Do not trust strangers, (one outstanding undergraduate told me “I trust no one”), talk openly only among immediate family, mind your own business, never speak up - speak softly, someone may be listening – and never offer your opinion. Never be different – do not stand out. In the workplace, do as you are told and go along to get along. Of course, there are exceptions among ethnic Russians and Latvians to this grim view– people who, throwing off the uniform of totalitarianism, embrace and relish freedom and achieve their dreams; after all, it is only human to desire freedom and to be creative, to express oneself, to seek and to arrive.
In my teaching in Latvia – now five years – I’ve broken away deliberately from the ubiquitous lecture/textbook teaching model (prevalent in both free and not-so-free societies). Instead, my emphasis is on working in teams, leading and following, the student’s thinking independently and critically in class and in group discussion among peers in their native language, and the questioning of authoritarian rule (with all its coercive certainties) vs. democratic rule (with all its ambiguities).
This emphasis is specific to creating leadership and workplace options in a post-totalitarian culture; and, importantly, to breaking away from the above enumerated behaviors from a despotic past.
That said, my approach to teaching these concepts could just as well be used – and indeed is - in some American classrooms to the benefit of many students who are not permitted as much freedom as they may want in their learning.

*Lubans, John “The Unfinished Work”: Organizational Democracy, in “Constantinou, Constantia, Michael Miller, and Kenneth Schlesinger, Editors. “International Librarianship: Developing Professional, Intercultural, and Educational Leadership.” Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2016.

**A professor from Prague, serving on a May 1-2 panel
Between Truth and Power” at the National Library of Latvia in Riga, spoke about the lingering effects of Soviet/Communist behavior. When a Czech, say in a shop, behaves in the Soviet manner – rude, dismissive, arrogant, belittling, etc – he smiles and calls the behavior. “Don’t give me this Soviet crap! I am the customer and you are the clerk. You get to serve me, not the other way around.” The Riga audience chuckled; perhaps resolving tacitly to do the same the next time someone puts on Soviet airs!
I have seen latent, anxiety-inducing, Soviet behavior in some - not all - Latvian bureaucracies; it’s tacitly understood: “We have you under our thumb and don’t you forget it!” Reminiscent of Merton’s “Bureaucratic Structure and Personality”, this anti-service attitude can be found in many bureaucracies the world over including the USA. It’s cured only when a people recognizes the behaviors as negative, removes offending supervisors and trains and disciplines employees to be genuinely client-centered, “to lean toward the customer”, not away.

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE HUNTER AND THE WOODMAN”*

Posted by jlubans on July 03, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1912.

“A Hunter was searching in the forest for the tracks of a lion, and, catching sight presently of a Woodman engaged in felling a tree, he went up to him and asked him if he had noticed a lion's footprints anywhere about, or if he knew where his den was. The Woodman answered, ‘If you will come with me, I will show you the lion himself.’ The Hunter turned pale with fear, and his teeth chattered as he replied, ‘Oh, I'm not looking for the lion, thanks, but only for his tracks.’"

“Clothes make the man”, as we can see in Rackham’s droll illustration. Fresh from a visit to the 1912 Abercrombie & Fitch - where the New Yorker went to get his elephant gun - our wannabe hunter is resplendent. In pith helmet, shooting jacket, jodhpurs and puttees, he’s ready for big game. He’s like many of us who sport REI outdoor wear but have the good sense not to clamber up Mt. Everest without the requisite experience and support.
If clothes are words our hunter is well spoken. But, like at work, deeds count more than appearance. Confronted by lion-like change, we’ll need courage and imagination more than a glib tongue or a Hermès tie.

*Source: AESOP'S FABLES A NEW TRANSLATION BY V. S. VERNON JONES WITH AN INTRODUCTION By G. K. CHESTERTON AND ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARTHUR RACKHAM (Publisher: London: W. Heinemann; New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1912). Available at Gutenberg.

© John Lubans 2015

A Group Final

Posted by jlubans on June 30, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: My students doing the end-of-class anonymous plus/delta .

One of the oft-heard hesitations about working in groups is that an individual’s brilliance may shine less, over-shaded by the group result.
That’s a fair objection. Our culture may talk team, but it venerates the individual. We tend to compensate individual effort more than that of a team. Other organizational structures, like performance appraisal, promotion and salary setting, perpetuate the notion of individual achievement over team achievement. After all, independence (critical thought and action orientation) is a valuable asset, is it not? So, becoming one of a faceless team may not be the best career move. Understandably, there may be reluctance among top performers to subordinate themselves to a team assessment.
A constant complaint about group work, certainly in school, and probably just as often on the job, is that the “slackers”, or the less able, are rewarded the same as those who do all the work.
In my own way, I perpetuate this dual perspective: my class is about teamwork and freedom at work, yet the final is an individual exam.
Now, I do give a lot of credit when it comes to participation – 30% of the grade*. But, participation is difficult to grade. It can be observed to some extent, e.g. does the student show up, does the student have something to say during small group discussion, does the student lean into the group or sit back silently?
But, still, my final exam is all about the individual’s ability to understand and to identify class concepts.
This latest group taking my 8-week Democratic Workplace class struck me as more together; there seemed to be fewer differences among the students than what I had seen in the three previous classes. This group worked well together, always including everyone in discussion – helping each other with translation and clarification of concepts - and they all seemed to be making genuine efforts to contribute in positive ways to the class. While a few students were better at English and had a bit more to offer, they were not that far superior to the group. And, for those weaker in language, that did not seem to affect their performance in group work in which they could speak Latvian.
So, on the day of the final, I surprised them with a choice:
Take the exam individually or in small groups. They opted – unanimously - for small groups even after I said, “No, you cannot choose your group.” I’d assign them randomly.
There were three groups, of 3, 3, and 4 students. If these groups asked to collaborate with each other – something they had done in class activities – I would have let them.
The results – the scores - were excellent - and should serve to drive home a central class notion that group work – when everyone is prepared to do their best – can often be superior to individual effort, to going it alone. These scores (on a scale of 10) seem to confirm this: 10.0, 9.5, and 9.3.
The previous three classes used a similar exam, with much greater variation among individual scores, ranging from lows in the 6’s to high 9’s.
And, I saw that the students learned from each other in coming up with answers. There was much animated discussion during the 50 questions final. And, given the course content and class objectives, the students saw for themselves that group work can be more effective than individual – on average - if everyone is prepared to bring their best.
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Caption: Students Klinta Kalnēja, Linda Voropajeva, and Evija Lapsa after their group final.

One student later observed in the anonymous plus/delta review:
“We as a class/group are a better team.”
Yet, another did comment, in summing up the class:
“Not so much opportunity to show our individual skills and knowledge.”
So, the tension between group and individual goes on, but I do recommend experimenting with group examinations. And, on the job, if you really must do performance appraisal (it really is best not to do it), try group assessment. Let the team “product” – however it is to be assessed - be the basis of the evaluation. Perhaps there can be ways to identify the “stars” – the MVPs – and to reward them above the team reward.
Once you make team assessment clear at the start of a year, that may encourage a team’s addressing its common problems. Often teams go through the motions rather than openly discuss individual effort toward teamwork.
If someone is a slacker, why should not the team confront that person and find out why and what can be done? Currently, it appears that team members are too intimidated and fear being labeled “not a team player” for calling out a team mate’s shortcomings. Instead avoidance and accommodation are practiced rather than talking through performance issues.
Frankly, I like this group exam approach and given another group with similar abilities and interests, I’ll do it again.

*REQUIREMENTS FOR GRADE in my Democratic Workplace class at the University of Latvia, Department of Information and Library Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences:
30% - Attendance and participation in class
30% - Assessment of individual work and participation in team assignments, including the “Books2Eat” project
20% - Solo paper
20% - Final examination

© John Lubans 2015