Why teams?

Posted by jlubans on June 10, 2011  •  Leave comment (0)

Why hierarchy? could be just as effective a lead-in title. Well, the Darwinists have something to say. (When don't they?) Their unruffled sea of "settled science" is now roiled up. The tempest is about recent comments from biologist, Edward O. Wilson as summed up in the April 21st Boston Globe. Mr. Wilson claims that:
The key (to goodness) is the group: Under certain circumstances, groups of cooperators can out-compete groups of non-cooperators, thereby ensuring that their genes — including the ones that predispose them to cooperation — are handed down to future generations. This so-called group selection, Wilson insists, is what forms the evolutionary basis for a variety of advanced social behaviors linked to altruism, teamwork, and tribalism.... (emphasis added.)

So, here we have a biological hypothesis about why we enjoy teamwork, and of course, why we may NOT enjoy teamwork.
I assume non-cooperators - there must be significant numbers - do not like teams because they do not want to cooperate or collaborate to survive. Whatever rationale given for why teams fail, it is interesting to have a biological suggestion. Some people really do NOT want a team to succeed while some people REALLY DO.

Of course, Adam Smith had something to say in 1759, about our instinctual wanting to help others:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE ANT”*

Posted by jlubans on December 13, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

20131213-The ant.jpg
Caption: Ant-evolution.
“Ants were once men and made their living by tilling the soil. But, not content with the results of their own work, they were always casting longing eyes upon the crops and fruits of their neighbours, which they stole, whenever they got the chance, and added to their own store. At last their covetousness made Jupiter so angry that he changed them into Ants. But, though their forms were changed, their nature remained the same: and so, to this day, they go about among the cornfields and gather the fruits of others' labour, and store them up for their own use.”
“You may punish a thief, but his bent remains.”

Usually ants are presented as industrious little devils, hard working (but uncharitable, if you ask the grasshopper in Aesop’s most famous fable.) I use the NOVA DVD, Ants - Little Creatures Who Run the World, by Edward O. Wilson in my class to demonstrate self-organizing concepts. As you may know, there is no boss in the ant world.
The behavior, in the DVD, of the army ants and their pillaging of their neighbors repelled many students. Humans, they admitted, can be pretty bad, but the ants don’t seem much better.
Dr. Wilson does seem to see the so-called “selflessness” of the ant as somehow superior to the selfishness of the human. Ants, for Professor Wilson, will survive long after humans have destroyed each other. He presents mankind’s challenge – if we are to survive - as an eternal paradox: “a tension between individuality and self-serving, on the one side, and the needs of the society on the other.”

Available at Gutenberg.

N.B. Leading from the Middle on the blogosphere:
Stephanie Gross's review of Leading from the Middle: “five of five stars”; “Excellent suggestions. A fabulous guidebook for employees of every rank and file,” appeared in Good Reads, March 2013.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Ants & Democracy

Posted by jlubans on December 19, 2012  •  Leave comment (2)

I will be showing my Democratic Workplace class the NOVA DVD, “Ants - Little Creatures Who Run the World.” The DVD features Dr. Edward O. Wilson’s research and was produced in the mid to late 90s. I’m using it to augment our class’ discussion of complex systems and how leaderless, self-organizing units work together to achieve group results.
Caption: Leaf-cutter ants laden with food for the nest*.
According to Dr. Wilson humans have an inherent weakness: we emphasize the needs of the individual over the needs of society. The final scenes of the DVD show a despoiled earth, all human life extinct. But as the camera zooms in, we see ants zipping around and through the concrete debris and metallic detritus of what used to be civilization. The ants win, continuing their 100 million year run of biological success! Clearly Dr. Wilson (or NOVA) thinks that the ants’ cooperation and seemingly selfless way of life (or, as the script has it anthropomorphically: “selfless devotion”) is vastly superior to mankind’s tendency toward selfish behavior. If we extend to the workplace the viewpoint that individual needs trump those of the group, it suggests that man is largely incapable of cooperating or collaborating. I expect that devout fans of the hierarchy are nodding vigorously in agreement. “I told you so! If humans are to accomplish anything, they need direction, the firmer the better.” (These same advocates for limiting personal freedom, of course, always exempts themselves from the coercive and necessary guidance for the masses.)
Unlike ants, humans are imbued (divinely or over time through evoution) with freedom and the capacity to make choices (bad and good), to decide for themselves. Also, we have the unique attribute of language to argue for and explain our choices.
The critics hold that if we got rid of choice, we could have a cooperative society and be better off. Charles Handy, in writing about the concept of subsidiarity, says this re individual freedom: “Choices, in fact, are our privilege, although they come disguised as problems, and stealing people’s choices is wrong.”**
Actually, humans do cooperate, just not consistently. (Chapter 23, "Sacred Teams", in the book, is especially relevant to humans cooperating. It has my observations about the Semana Santa processions in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.)
Is this inconsistency in cooperating a fatal weakness for our kind? I’ll ask the class, “Do you agree that this is a weakness? In what ways? Does taking away a worker’s elbow-room for making decisions eliminate democracy in the workplace?

*While hiking in Costa Rica in early November, I observed, close-up, long lines of leaf-cutter ants, burdened with freshly cut leaf segments, hurrying across rocks, rutted earth, fallen tree limbs – nothing could stop their march back to the nest. The DVD confirms that the harvest does not kill the trees. New leaves will soon grow back for another bountiful harvest.

**Handy, Charles. “Subsidiarity Is the Word for It.” Across the Board (magazine); June, 1999, 36: 7-8.

Why teams? Part 2: Two monkeys carrying a log.

Posted by jlubans on July 15, 2011  •  Leave comment (0)

Not long ago, I came across some science that gave insight into the question of why humans experience a gravitational pull toward teamwork and, by extension, a yearning for an egalitarian workplace.
On July 4, the New York Times offered up a distillation of recent evolutionary research that extends and supports the hypothesis that humans teaming-up is a natural - even biological - way of being.
Natalie Angier, the author of this insightful piece, cites several anthropologists’ research that strongly suggests human values, like cooperation and collaboration, fair play and fairness in resource distribution, have evolved over time. Her article seeks to make a point about pay inequity (which in its most obscene sense, can be found in any herd of MBAs), but the article is far more successful in helping define the elusive aspects of why humans cooperate, why we prefer the egalitarian and participatory workplace to the hierarchy, why we do not mind generally helping each other instead of always maximizing our advantage at the expense of others. Of course, in that herd of MBAs and among even academics, there are vestigial attributes that push individuals (Type A personalities?) to survive; to hell with everyone else.
But, for the most part the Darwinists do see us as different from other primates.
20110715-chimp3.jpg”Two chimpanzees will never carry a log together”. Humans will. Why?
We work with team building rules learned on the veldt, according to Angier: "belief in fairness and reciprocity (the Golden Rule!), a capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a willingness to work cooperatively."
It is why we will accept a mild sort of hierarchy but will resist mightily a rigid structure dictating our every action and thought.
Some research shows how that resistance toward something patently inequitable (e. g. "one for me and 8 for you") can be reduced with anti anxiety drugs. In real life, those that hold absolute power know just how tenuous their grasp is; it is probably why vodka in communist Russia was always available and cheap.
Teams are not about the survival of the fittest. We have weak members and we have strong members - the best teams know what a team is about and they make use of every member's skills, not just depend on the one or two "stars" to achieve goals. The researcher David Sloan Wilson says that ‘when you have mechanisms for suppressing fitness differences and establishing equality within groups ... it is no longer possible to succeed at the expense of your group." While these “mechanisms” may control the bully or the person who must always be the team captain, team members may overcompensate for the weakest members, protecting the underperformer instead of confronting the problem. Perhaps this kind-hearted avoidance of conflict among team members is more biological than we realize. Of course, really good teams work out differences. Unlike many mediocre teams highly effective teams do not avoid the inevitable "storming" phase of team development; they know the differences have to be engaged and resolved if the team is to succeed.

“Freedom is in the heart.”

Posted by jlubans on March 13, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

My class recently discussed Ants - Little Creatures Who Run the World, the NOVA DVD about Edward O. Wilson’s research.
I blogged about my decision - freely made, by the way, not predetermined or decided by chance - to use this film in my Democratic Workplace class. My point was to demonstrate how a leaderless group like ants or the much more likeable honeybee and several other creatures, cooperate to gain advantage and to survive. These were my discussion questions:
“According to Dr. Wilson humans’ inherent weakness is to emphasize the needs of the individual over the needs of society. Do you agree that this is a weakness? In what ways a weakness or not a weakness?

Will the “eternal paradox, a tension between individuality and self-serving, on the one side, and the needs of the society on the other,” prove fatal?

Is there then good reason to rely more than we do now on democratic organizations in which extreme individualism is subordinate to what is good for the group? Is that possible?”

The discussion went in a direction I’d not anticipated, but I am glad where it went. While the students noted the ants’ ability to cooperate, to be mission-focused, and to sacrifice-self for the group (“one for all, all for one”, they were not convinced that an ant-like society, however wonderful the cooperation, would be an improvement over present human society.
There are lessons, the students believe, to be learned from the ants: “Ants example proves that people need to cooperate and “try” to work in groups.”
I was particularly sensitive to the discussion because I’ve been thinking about what democracy means and along the way have encountered the eternal arguments about free will and questions about man’s need or desire for .
The Ants movie emphatically illustrates that humankind is different from the ant. The student discussion did not miss out on the difference. “Ants are little ‘robots’, but people not!” The ants follow instincts, not emotions, a minus” in student eyes. “Human cooperation is conscious.” “It is not a weakness to think about the individual needs.” “Humans have progress because of individualism, a plus”
Man is far from perfect, however. “Ants preserve nature, a plus. Humans do not see limits of destruction of nature, a minus.”
And, “People (human) need to learn from ants: how to make a democratic society!!! We are trying to do our BEST!” And, “we must find middle way between individual needs and needs of society.”
That these students live in a society only 22 years out of Communist oppression – “an all-knowing, all-caring, all-providing Soviet” – makes them more acutely aware than most about what subordinating people to some coordinating power really means. It’s totalitarian, regardless what you label it. And, if you buck the system, you are deemed a traitor and on your way to a Siberia not of your choosing. At least that is how I interpret the students’ response.

Shortly after the discussion, I gave a mini-lecture about Maslow’s “hierarchy of human needs” – many in the class were familiar with Maslow – and I think it was helpful to compare ants to humans on this hierarchy. (It’s helpful to remember when Maslow wrote about the needs hierarchy: during and after the horrors of the 2nd World War.)
I pointed out that the ants “selflessness” and sacrifice gains them the first two and a half steps up the “needs ladder”: Biological and Physiological needs, Safety needs, and maybe, Belongingness. Still, we quickly see that ants miss out on the higher needs of esteem and self-actualization. That’s probably OK with the ants, but it does not make for anything approaching a human life well lived. To fulfill only biological and safety needs kills in most people - although there are remarkable exceptions – the desire for a better life.
If “freedom is in the heart!” as one student stated, is not totalitarianism then only going to permit people an ant-like existence? In other words, to achieve the esteem and self-actualization the individual has to have freedom to choose.
Before I become incoherent, I’ll try to link the discussion to the workplace. In the democratic workplace, the worker has a say, she helps make decisions and is encouraged not to hold back. It is through the collective wisdom of those people doing the job that we make improvements and produce better services and improve our productivity. That can only happen with freedom.

Going forward?

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

Caption: Gone forward.

Sorry ain’t what it used to be.” - Anonymous.
Imagine yourself back in the 3rd or 4th grade. The teacher has announced a pop quiz on last night’s homework; spelling words. You forgot to do your homework. The kid next to you is a brainiac and, hallelujah, you can see her answers. Shortly after, the teacher catches you cheating. As your punishment, the teacher tells you to apologize to the class.

Apology 1: “I am sorry for what I did. For those of you who might have been offended by my actions I am truly sorry. It won’t happen again. Going forward, I want to be better prepared for class so that I am not tempted to cheat.

Or, Apology 2: “I am sorry I got caught. It won’t happen again. As you all know, this is not who I am.
Going forward, I can’t wait to get to recess and out on the playground.”

Of course, little kids don’t use phrases like “going forward” nor should they. Well, neither should adults. I’ll explain why later.
The two apologies approximate what we hear from grown ups. Apology 1 is better than #2, but it still strives to limit one’s guilt to only those who “might have been offended” – the bad is in the eye of the beholder not in what you did.
Apology 2 strips away the veneer of fake contrition.
Going forward is used in both these apologies in the same sense as it is used in the corporate setting: “I am done with the apology and it is time for you (the audience) and me to move on.”
So, what’s your problem with going forward, John?
Here’s my issue: First off, the phrase is no longer effective. Like “thinking outside the box”, “paradigm shift”, “win-win”, “tipping point”, “ROI”, and countless other buzzwords, the term “going forward” is a tone-deaf cliché, it turns off the listener. Spavined, it signifies nothing and probably never did. (To talk like a corporate pirate, go here.)
Worse, there’s a tacit meaning behind going forward, i.e. a new start, a new beginning. This unintentionally amusing corporate double entendre might help make my point:
“The Seattle Times reported that (Boss X) sent a companywide message calling his (insensitive) remark ‘a joke gone bad,’ and said ‘I should have used different words, and I apologize for them. I will definitely be more careful going forward.’" (Emphasis added.)
Going forward is used to segue away from the incident – it is now, according to the apologizer, old news and should be forgotten. Get over it!
However, that undercuts the effect of the apology. It is not your role to proclaim that you are moving on. The people to whom you are apologizing get to decide about your going forward or not. Your claim to going forward looks just like what it is: an arrogant leap ahead of your contrition.
Instead of ending your apology with a request for forgiveness you are assuming you’ve been forgiven or, more likely, that there’s nothing to forgive.
Silence is what should follow a request for forgiveness. If there’s any forgiveness to be had, you are not the one to grant it! If you are genuinely contrite, you have to trust that those to whom you’ve apologized will indeed forgive, maybe not right then and there, but some time down the road. Certainly, if you’re not taken away in handcuffs, you should continue to do your job; just show some humility.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: University of La Verne
, La Verne, CA United States

Copyright © John Lubans 2015

On the Fulbright road, again!: Zadar, Opatija, Zagreb

Posted by jlubans on May 23, 2011  •  Leave comment (0)

Right after the Lithuania presentation, I headed for Croatia to do three Fulbright sponsored events.
20110524-MaineinZ.jpeg (I know this looks like a pic from coastal Maine, but it is not. Across from the red "lobster shack" is a Roman wall!)
First stop was at the University of Zadar in a beautiful ancient town on the southern coast. 20110524-pyramidZad.jpeg(Students completing the first round of the paper pyramid with observation feedback to each other.) There, at the invitation of Professor Tatjana Aparac Jelušić I gave a two hour class on teams & coaching to an undergraduate class in their library and information science program. That was on May 9.
May 11-13 found me in Opatija after a five hour bus trip along a coast-that-never-ceases-to-amaze! The only interruption in this scenic bonanza is Rijeka a ship building town with a Hungarian (long forgotten) and Italian (still current) history, and its own sights to see.
The adjacent resort community, north, is Opatija. How do you spell DELIGHTFUL? No, OPATIJA!
20110524-Shoulder.jpeg(The signature Opatija statue sits on my shoulder and a sea gull abides a while on her head!)
The conference hotel was the Hotel Adriatic and had its own pier, swimming area. Do you know that Opatija has a 12 kilometer walk along the cliffs above the beach, cutting through bistros, humble villas, not so humble villas, gardens, yacht clubs,and palatial restaurants, with water access to anyone, to everyone, anytime? Yes, 12 kilometers of shaded well paved walk ways only a few yards above the greenest, most inviting water to be seen.
20110524-casino.jpeg(One morning the dappled roof of the shuttered villa across from my hotel was luminous, if that's the word.)
There on May 12, I gave a keynote presentation based on my Klaipeda talk: "Leading from the Center or I "Borrowed the Shoes But the Holes Are Mine". One person, a veterarian and librarian, said I must have known what I was talking about since I angered the Darwinists by siding with Prof. Wilson and qouted from Lao Tzu.
Alisa Martek, Head of Library at the Croatian State Archives introduced me. The conference banquet was that night and you should NOT inquire as to how I did in the ZUMBA! dance contest.
20110524-bus.jpeg(It rained, a downpour, so changed our itinerary and the bus wound its way through the ancient streets to the Governor's palace.)
Saturday, May 13, we (50 conference attendees) toured Rijeka's Governor's Palace 20110524-palace.jpeg (Come in!)20110524-palace2.jpeg (This table leg griffin? caught my eye!)
and the newly constructed campus of the University of Rijeka, soon to be the site of large contingents of American students on their semester abroad programs. 20110524-new u of r.jpeg (This is a vast open deck space between two buildings with a view of the harbor)
20110524-new rij u.jpeg
Ask me about the very tasty and highly agreeable grappa derived from mistletoe.
That night we made it to Zagreb just ahead of the rain that entire weekend. Naturally, being an Outward Bounder, what's a little rain? It only ADDS to the adventure!
Monday, I gave a talk on Internet Use (What Do Users Want? or "If the Phone Don't Ring, It's Me.") to a dozen or so staff at the Croatia State Archives.
We were back in Riga on May 17th, late afternoon.

Labas rytas! "Wearing Holes in Borrowed Shoes!"

Posted by jlubans on December 05, 2011  •  Leave comment (0)

This is the text of my talk from my December 2, 2011 talk in Vilnius Lithuania*.

Labas rytas! (Good morning!)
My talk today is largely based on my new book, Leading from the Middle.
1. Meaning
2. Experience
3. Implications.

I have added a country western song as a sub-title: "I Borrowed the Shoes But the Holes Are Mine." The sub title recognizes what others have done in thinking about the democratic workplace and that I am building upon those ideas. Yet, I am putting my own holes in those borrowed shoes!
You get the idea?
1. What is the Meaning of Leading from the Middle?
My book promotes a democratic, empowered work place. I argue in the book that the best work places give staff the freedom to achieve their full potential. The less command and control, the better. The book also reveals how I lead, how I manage, so it is not all theory. Please do not think that I am advocating anarchy, however interesting it might be to find out how an anarchous library would function.

Frankly, there was some resistance to publishing the book, but what bothers me most is our superficial thinking about good leadership, about being productive, and about managing for best outcomes. It seems like none of this is especially important to us and that good leadership is something that happens somehow without our having to think too much about it. Leadership comes with the title on the door! Right? Where does bad leadership come from? How do bad followers come about? Good followers? Most of us know a few good and many bad leaders. What sets them apart? Is it really all happenstance?

I think the democratic work place – the one espoused in the book – appeals especially to the younger, newer professional. Our new librarians – the best ones in my classes in the US and in Riga - are demanding a say, they yearn for something more. Will we – today’s leaders – give them what they want?

I’d like to talk about my U of L class and how it learned to self-lead. My model for the class was that of a student orchestra learning how to play without a conductor modeled after the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. I have studied this self-managing group for over a decade and continue to marvel at their accomplished playing. Here is a picture. What or who is missing?
INSERT Carnegie Hall pics

My University of Latvia students responded very well. Not only did they excel at three team projects they also made connections between theory and practice, linking lessons and concepts learned in group activities to lectures and readings and to their own experience.
We know the hierarchy prevails in Latvian culture, as it does in the USA and I believe it does in Lithuania. I expect these students when given leadership opportunities will modify work place cultures toward the more democratic and less bureaucratic.
At the end of the class the students told me what worked and what did not: Self-management in a group is no easy task. While pleased with the results, many issues (storming) had to be resolved before the groups could produce an end product, one that met a minimum standard of acceptance.
More than once each group wished for the intervention of a strong leader – deus ex machina- like - to take over decision making, to tell them what to do. Informal leaders did appear and they made a difference.
I asked: Are effective teams more productive than the boss led variety? The answer: It depends.
A quintessential lesson from my students - I did not fully appreciate this until a recent panel presentation by three of my students ( from left, Edite Maliseva, Inara Kindzule, Aija Uzula)
(Insert picture from panel)
at my November 30 Riga workshop: Assign or have groups clearly spell out, early on, individual roles and expectations, including leadership, very much like the concert master that takes responsibility for each piece of music performed by Orpheus.
2. Now, I’d like to talk about the Experience
I have empirical evidence that empowerment, when done in a genuine and supportive way does result in a more creative and productive work place than does the hierarchy. I have seen it happen, I have been involved with it.
Still teamwork is not for everyone. Some of my library groups were unhappy with empowerment and were passive about sharing power.
Real empowerment works. Not just in libraries: in business and in music and there is much research to support the notion of freeing up people to do their best, to be all they can be.
Is Teamwork natural?
Well, apparently so: Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson was quoted in the, April 17, 2011 issue of the Boston Globe:
“Under certain circumstances, groups of cooperators can out-compete groups of non-cooperators, thereby ensuring that their genes — including the ones that predispose them to cooperation — are handed down to future generations….
(This) is what forms the evolutionary basis for a variety of advanced social behaviors linked to altruism, teamwork, and tribalism.”
(Centuries before, Adam Smith wrote about man’s inherent altruism; now even some Darwinists appear to accept his idea that people like helping others simply for the pleasure derived from their kindness.)

And, the honeybee has much to teach us about collaboration in the workplace. Bees are leaderless – despite popular belief, the queen has no executive role. How then does a swarm of 10,000 bees survive?
How does the swarm select a new home from dozens of options?
How do the bees choose the one best site with an accuracy rate of 80%?
The recent book, Honeybee Democracy – Medus bite Demokratija - offers a fascinating look at democracy in the world of the honeybee.
Scout bees, when home hunting:
1. Identify a diverse set of options,
2. Freely share the information about these options,
3. Aggregate this information to choose the best option.
“Remarkably the scout bees do all these things without working under the guidance of a leader.”
3. So, what are the Implications of the concept of leading from the middle?
Leading from the middle creates new expectations among students and I was obliged to try different ways of teaching, e.g. I used children’s books and other activities
to make points about effective followers, about least likely followers, about resourcefulness, and about attitude.
Likewise, different power dynamics come into play for leaders and followers. Leaders in an empowered organization need people skills (and a strong sense of self value and confidence) to get the most from library staff, to enable staff to reach high levels of achievement.
It’s easy to talk about empowereing staff but much harder to carry out. It can be difficult to turn people loose for real. What happens? What does it mean for a manager, for a leader? When the group takes off – when the orchestra is “unleashed” what happens to the conductor? When I did it, my traditional supervisory leader role changed. It changes vastly for the better in my eyes, but it can be scary and can make a leader vulnerable, something I personally discovered. When followers become leaders, that raises questions about our leadership role and necessity as leaders and managers. Do we have a job? Of course we do. We learn to lead more and manage less.
I have a challenge for you. Be more bee-like!
Thank you!

*NOTE: "Leading from the Middle: ‘I Borrowed the Shoes But the Holes Are Mine’”
was Presented December 2, 2011 at Vilnius University, Vilnius, Lithuania at the conference, "Library science and practice: yesterday and tomorrow", the 80th anniversary of the Lithuanian Society of Librarians.